Networks, the Forgotten Child of Small Business

I have been doing professional IT consulting since early 2000.  When I started supporting small businesses most of them had a computer or 2 and they used a dial up modem to connect to the Internet.  I came into the industry just as computer networks really started to be on the small business radar.  A few businesses had Windows NT servers or even Novell, but most did not.  Many of the businesses I visited used coax networks and hadn’t made the transition to Ethernet based networks yet.  I remember very distinctly this being the time when Microsoft and a few others in the IT world really started to look at small business and see that there was a need for technology that would allow them to compete with large enterprises.  Microsoft launched a “first server” campaign with Small Business Server which was a huge catalyst for bringing major change to the way small businesses used technology.  There was a problem though — small businesses had no experience building networks and decisions were made not strategically and with the future in mind but because an immediate need forced them.  As Ethernet became popular, switches were put in cabinets or on shelves, generally close to the server or a person’s computer that doubled as the “server.”  As the need grew for servers, they were tucked where ever they could go.  Servers were stuck under desks, in closets, storage rooms, next to boilers, or in damp basements.  None of these places were designed to accommodate the needs of the very expensive networking equipment that in just a few short years all of these small companies have staked business on and rely on for nearly every aspect of their daily operation.  15 years later this equipment is still being relegated to whatever dark corner it can be hidden.  It is time to change the way you look at your network and your servers and move this equipment into an environment where it has a chance of working for you longer and with more efficiency.

Server rooms and network closets have 2 basic requirements: power and temperature managements.  The network equipment can draw a lot of power and is vulnerable to outages due to blown breakers as well as surges and sags in the current that is being provided to them.  A server closet should have at least one dedicated circuit on its own breaker that is capable of supporting the power requirements of your equipment.  Depending on the amount of equipment more than one circuit may be needed.  Call an electrician to make this happen, but make sure they understand what you are trying to accomplish.  It is usually a good idea to let them chat with your IT consultant to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Don’t let your electrician go just yet because they might need to supply additional power to run some air conditioning equipment.  All your equipment has a rating for operating on both hot and cold temperatures.  Operating above or below those tolerances can be quite destructive to the electronics inside.  Most equipment has a rating for how much heat it gives off under average operating conditions, usually listed in BTUs.  Adding these up for all your equipment will tell you and someone familiar with heating and cooling like an HVAC contractor how much extra cooling will be needed for the room or closet.  In many cases, a standalone unit is needed to provide the cooling power needed to fight the BTUs the equipment is radiating.

Let’s talk location.  Your equipment doesn’t really care where it is.  It doesn’t aspire to a corner office, but there are a few things you should have and a few you should try and avoid.  Water is a big thing you want to stay away from.  If your equipment is in a basement try and make sure it is away from any water pipes or hot water tanks.  Also, if the basement is prone to flooding or is damp/humid you should avoid this as a good place to have your equipment.  Small closets are not the best because they trap heat, so if you are using a closet make sure you plan for exceptional ventilation and airflow.  The optimum location for your equipment is some place central to all the other devices that will be connecting to it.  This location should be away from exterior doors and windows to help prevent the weather from getting in.  There should be enough room for all of the equipment to be easily accessible.  The area should have a door with a lock, because we don’t want anyone just walking in and accessing the server and equipment where all of your employee’s and clients’ personal information is stored.  Finally, remember the power and cooling we talked about earlier?  It needs to be some place where these needs can be met with minimum difficulty.

If you haven’t updated your cabling since 2003 now is probably a good time.  Cat6 cabling is inexpensive and provides excellent support for fast gigabit data speeds.  When pulling your new cable, bring it all to a central location like patch panels in a rack, which allows for organization that can aid in trouble- shooting later.  If properly bundled it also improves airflow and reduces the amount of heat trapped in the room or closet.  Most switches are designed to be placed in racks, so mounting your switches in a rack above or below the patch panel is pretty straight forward.  When you start looking at racks you have to decide what you plan on placing in the racks and if you think there is a possibility your network might grow.  Experience from the last 15 years tells me yes network growth is certain, but I asked a Magic 8 Ball to be sure and it answered “Signs point to yes!”  A wall mount rack is good for switches and patch panels; however, if you are considering purchasing a rack mount server to replace that old Windows Server 2003 that is going out of support then a free standing 4 post rack is probably your best bet.  You just need to be sure you have enough space for your current equipment and some room to grow.

I have another article in this newsletter talking about backup power, but I want to touch on it again here briefly.  When planning a server room or closet make sure you include planning for battery backup and generator power.  Batteries generate heat just like the other equipment in the room so they should be included in the calculation.  Depending on the size and type of battery you choose they can be mounted to the wall, placed on the floor or even placed in the rack as the power distribution point for the devices mounted in the rack, so make sure you have room for it and perhaps extra batteries and backups as your needs grow.

Small businesses rely on the networks they have pieced together over time and by-and-large they have served their purpose well.  The more we depend on our networks the more important it becomes to have a properly designed network and server room/data center to maintain the efficiency of that technology.  I am not recommending everyone start remodeling their offices in favor of adding a datacenter.  I am recommending however you take a look at where your equipment is located and begin planning on improving the environment in which it works with an eye towards achieving all the things I have mentioned in this article.  The network is no longer a red-headed step-child hid away in the basement but the heart of how you do business, and it is an excellent time to start changing the way it is treated, to begin thinking of it as a core part of the business and a strategic tool to improve the way the business operates.

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