Setting up Your Wireless Shop

A shopping guide for small businesses. You want to get everybody in your small business working together, but not if it means knocking holes in the walls or snaking wires through the ceiling. You want to open up new work spaces, not chain people to one wall in one office. You want to give your employees access to the Internet or scheduling software, but you don’t want your data exposed to the world.

You want a secure wireless local area network (WLAN). For about half the price and a fraction of the hassle of a wired network, you can bring the people in your workplace together in new ways. Employees can share files, printers, or connectivity without the need for a cable in every corner.

“If you have a wired network, your employees are limited in where they can go,” says Daniel Monjar, manager of network services and security for bioMŽrieux in the Americas. “A wireless network can actually be a factor in employee satisfaction. They could sit outside on a pretty day and do their work at a picnic table.”

Working for bioMŽrieux, a manufacturer of medical diagnostic equipment headquartered in France, Monjar has seen many advantages to wireless networks. He administers a network serving more than 600 employees at bioMŽrieux’s facility in Durham, N.C.

But similar advantages apply to, say, a small business with 10 or more employees, says Monjar: “During open enrollment for benefits, we always have to set up kiosks for people who don’t use PCs. With a wired network you’re limited in where you can put them, but a WLAN access point makes them easy to set up anywhere.”

Start with the Basics

An access point is one of several pieces of hardware you’ll need to set up a WLAN.

Here’s a list that covers the needs of most small businesses:

* Access point: A radio that transmits data to and from other hardware on the network.

* Router: The foundation of the network, and the only element that needs to plug into a wall port. Often part of an access point, a router usually includes an integrated modem and may also include a firewall and switch.

* Wireless network cards or adapters: The receivers for the access point radio. Wireless cards or adapters plug into PCs to allow them to send and receive data.

The price of routers varies dramatically, from around $50 to $100 for a decent off-the-shelf model by Linksys or Netgear up to around $800 for a high-end, high-security model by a manufacturer like Juniper Networks or Linksys parent Cisco. Unless a firm needs a greater level of data encryption because of security and privacy concerns, such as a medical or law office, a low-end router will do the job for most small businesses.

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make involves WLAN standards. Are you more concerned with speed, cost, or signal range? Here’s a brief overview:

* 802.11a: Fast.Supports multiple simultaneous users. Less interference from other devices. Pricey, with a short, easily obstructed signal.

* 802.11b: Slow. Supports fewer simultaneous users. But it’s cheap, and it offers the best signal range.

* 802.11g: The latest and the greatest, at least until 802.11i becomes widely available. Fast and cheap. Strong signal supports multiple simultaneous users. Backwards compatible with 802.11b for users with older laptops.

Most of what you need at the router end can come in a small, inexpensive package, such as the Netgear DG834G or the Linksys Wireless-G. Both retail for well under $100, and both include modem, router, switch, access point, and firewall.

The router should go in a high, central location in your building. You’ll probably need more than one access point if your offices have more than one floor or you need to connect more than 15 or 20 people.

“If you have more than that, it starts slowing everything down and you get problems,” Monjar says.

Wireless signals have a hard time breaking through stone and steel, and glass tends to send them right back where they came from. Other electronic equipment can interfere with the signal. It may take a little trial and error to find the best placement for your access point.

Your WiFi network should extend about the length of a football field: 300 feet. New, more expensive WiMAX technology may extend a wireless network as far as 30 miles, but unless a small business has multiple offices in a city or needs extensive mobile connectivity, a conventional WLAN should do the job.

It’s All in the Cards

At the other end of the network, your desktop PCs and laptops will need a card or adapter to connect. Most cost less than $50 apiece. Desktops can take either an internal PCI card or an external USB adapter, such as the D-Link DWL-G122 or the Hawking Wireless G. For laptops the standard is the size of a credit card and slides into a PCMCIA slot, like the Vtech 6700G and the Belkin F5D7011. Most new laptops come with wireless access already built in.

Wireless networks only take an hour or two to set up, depending on the number of users. A business with 10 or 15 employees can usually get one up and running for $1,000 or less. If you intend your network to provide Internet connectivity you’ll also need a broadband connection, of course.

Once you get your employees connected, make sure you don’t let the rest of the world in. With greater connectivity comes the need for greater security.

First off, change the default settings. Routers and access points have service set identifiers, or SSIDs. Not creating your own unique SSIDs and passwords is like handing an intruder a master key to your offices.

Along the same lines, you’ll want to configure your access points so they won’t broadcast your SSID. If your access points don’t have built-in firewalls, it’s worth spending a little more to add them. At the end of the line, PCs should run firewall and current antivirus software.

Enhanced network services will increase the installation time and costs. While the combination routers described above provide basic connectivity, some businesses may want the additional power and flexibility that comes with adding a server.

You’ll probably want to add servers if you’d like to share printers, use localized mail systems like MS Exchange and Lotus Notes, or provide system-wide tape backup for your data.

“I can’t imagine many businesses that wouldn’t need a local server or two, but it isn’t absolutely necessary,” Monjar says.

Call the Plumber

Then there’s maintenance. With standard warranties, your WLAN may be down for a day before service help arrives. An upgraded warranty will bring a four-hour response by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“You can’t forget to include maintenance,” Monjar says. “Because it can become fairly expensive if your network is down for a long time.”

While a wireless network may hit some snags, chances are the hardware will live to a ripe old age. “I’ve got servers that are 10 years old,” Monjar says. “Your equipment will run as long as you want it. Usually you outgrow the equipment before it dies.”

Eddie Huffman ([email protected]), a former editor for Compute magazine and Compute Books, is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer based in Burlington, N.C.

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