Business computer networks: An introduction

In response to recent Any Answers questions, Simon Hurst and Robert May have collaborated on an introductory guide advising accountants about their computer networking options.

Two recent Any Answers questions brought computer networking to the fore on AccountingWEB.co.uk. One member sought advice on upgrading a small network while a second question extended the horizon to larger server-based networks to support remote workers.

Both threads contained useful advice came from AccountingWEB.co.uk members and they inspired IT trainer Simon Hurst and networking expert Robert May to put their heads together to update members on the options and issues facing accountants and businesses that need dependable access to their applications and data.

The guide is published in two parts. Based on his experiences running an organisation “just slightly smaller” than the 2-5 person outfit mentioned in the second question, Simon Hurst looked at the low-end options.

Robert May, meanwhile, works for ramsac, one of the world’s biggest managed IT service providers. His guide considers the more complex demands created when you rely on a central server to support people working in multiple sites. He also touches on emerging technology trends such as virtualisation and using terminal servers.

But before getting your teeth into the nuts and bolts of networking, Hurst offers some general advice. Having a network can boost productivity, whatever the size of your organisation, and it is always worth employing a qualified professional to help set it up.

“Although the initial investment might seem painful, getting good advice, tailored to your own circumstances, could save you a great deal of time or, even more significantly, could prevent a data loss or security breach,” says Hurst.

“In addition, it’s important to think about the future maintenance of a system. In a small organisation it’s probable that much of the time you spend on implementing, maintaining and trouble-shooting your computer systems is going to be time that you could have spent on generating income instead. If you want to go the do-it-yourself route you need to be sure that you can save more money by managing your own system than you could generate by devoting that time to the rest of your business.

“If you don’t have the expertise then there’s good reason to outsource your computer system in some way. If you do have the expertise then that’s probably an even better reason to outsource as you won’t be so tempted to fiddle with computers when you should be doing chargeable work…”

Cloud Computing is another option worth considering. By relying on application servers and storage facilities on the internet, the Cloud offers the possibility of letting you or your associates, colleagues and clients access data from anywhere at any time. It also holds the promise of transferring nearly all the system management and update requirements to the host, freeing the end-user to concentrate on the business. To accompany the plentiful supply of information already available about the Cloud on AccountingWEB.co.uk, Hurst and May are collaborating on a follow up guide.

For those who prefer to remain in the client/server world with servers on their own premises, these are your main options

Network for one  - Simon Hurst
Simon Hurst used to run a “real” client/server network at The Knowledge Base using Microsoft Small Business Server and Microsoft Exchange. This configuration allowed the team to share not just applications, but email, contacts, appointments etc. Even though he now works on his own, there are still advantages to having a computer network.

“Having all my data files in a central location that I can connect to from wherever – even remotely if required – is convenient. If I’m reasonably disciplined, I have one location that I can keep backed-up to secure all my data,” he says.

These days, however, rather than running a Windows-based server, Hurst satisfies all his networking needs with a £300 Network Attached Storage device, which can host a website and act as a server for applications such as MySQL, with remote access and user security controls.

Small business server for remote working
From ramsac’s point of view there are a number of angles on the remote network/server discussion. Microsoft’s Windows Small Business Server (SBS) is marketed at users between 5 and a maximum 75 (either users or machines depending on how you license). However, in our experience the tipping point for buying separate software server components (rather than the bundled offering of SBS) is between 25 and 30 users. At this point it becomes cheaper to unbundle. There are two versions of SBS, Standard and Premium. Premium includes SQL Server which is now required for many practice management and CRM systems.

When it comes to supporting remote workers on the network (for serious amounts of work rather than occasional "GoTo" sessions, the choice comes down to either Windows Terminal Services or Citrix. Depending on your processing needs and the types of user support, they both have merits. During the past six months, we've done some comparisons to assess which is best for particular situations.

Further reading