Networks are simply a series of computers, printers and other hardware linked together with cables that allow them to "talk" to each other. There are two basic types of networks appropriate for small businesses: peer-to-peer and client/server. A peer-to-peer network is a system of computers that are all connected to allow sharing of files and peripherals with each other. In a peer-to-peer network, there is no central computer, or server, in control. Generally, peer-to-peer systems are most appropriate for businesses with five PCs or less.
If you have more than five computers or want to share large files and databases, a client/server network is probably your best bet. The server, a high-speed workstation or PC with lots of processing power and storage capacity, stores all shared applications and files; employees must access the server to use them.
While configurations and components differ, the basic parts of a network are the same. In either environment, each networked computer must have what's called a network interface card (NIC) that allows the device to communicate with other machines. In a client/server network, there's also a server (with NIC) and a network hub that routes cabling to a central location. Finally, there must be cabling to connect all the devices together. There are two preferred types of cable for small-business networks: 10BASE-2 and 10BASE-T. In general, 10BASE-2 has been a common choice for networks with five or less PCs; however, 10BASE-T cabling is the most popular overall because it's relatively inexpensive and offers easier maintenance and higher flexibility.
Most entry-level networking solutions cost just a few hundred dollars. The OfficeConnect Networking Kit from 3Com, for instance, is available for $299. Think of it this way: If you've saved yourself from buying another printer by installing a network, you've paid for the cost of the network while reaping all the benefits it has to offer.
The thought of installing a network can strike fear into even the most intrepid small-business owners, which is why many vendors package all-in-one solutions for small businesses. For example, the OfficeConnect Networking Kit, sold through retail and reseller channels, comes with all the hardware you need to connect up to three PCs. The kit includes one hub, three NICs and three cables; you have the option to buy additional NICs and cabling as your business grows. With a basic understanding of networks, you can probably set one up yourself; Lyon installed his OfficeConnect network in just a few hours. He also spends only about one hour per week managing it, so it doesn't take too much time out of his busy schedule.
Similarly, NetGear's Network Starter Kit ($179), sold primarily through retail channels, also comes with one hub, two NIC cards and cabling to connect two PCs. One unique feature: Its NICs have built-in technology to reduce your hardware costs should you decide to upgrade your network. Data is transferred along a network at two speeds: 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps. Generally, NICs are designed to work with one of these speeds, but NetGear's 10/100 Mbps network cards operate with either speed, so if you start out with a 10 Mbps network but want to upgrade to a 100 Mbps system later on, you don't have to buy new NICs; however, you will have to upgrade to a faster 100 Mbps hub.
MangoSoft has a new software solution that utilizes the resources of a networked environment differently. Instead of the traditional client/server environment where all PCs connected to a network must access the server to share data, MangoSoft's Medley97 software uses "CacheLink architecture" to pool the storage and memory resources of all the connected PCs. For example, if you have 10 users connected to a network and each contributes 100MB of hard-drive space, a total of 1GB is designated for use as a "Medley drive" across your network. With Medley software, all the PCs then act as both a client and a server.
The benefits? With all PCs on the network taking over the role of the server, there's no need to invest in this costly piece of hardware. Plus, because the software automatically stores data across all the machines, files may be stored in close proximity to you--possibly even on your own machine--so the time it takes to retrieve them may be reduced. A Medley two-connection software starter kit costs $249 (networking hardware not included); each additional connection costs $199.