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There's nothing as awesome as networking hardware, right? OK, it's not as hip as a smartphone, but Ethernet hardware should be the backbone of your growing office network.
Sure, Wi-Fi is more exciting, but most new computers today are pre-configured with Ethernet adapters and need only a good Ethernet switch and some Category 5 cable to start communicating with each other. The wired portions of your network will be more secure, more reliable and, usually, faster than wireless nodes.
Fast Ethernet is the networking flavor used most often; it provides data transfers of 100 megabits per second. Even faster (1,000Mbps) gigabit Ethernet switches are also popular, and sometimes, the two are found on the same switch. We'll look at some of each.
Many manufacturers, both large and small, offer both kinds of switches. Your first decision is managed or unmanaged. Managed switches come stocked with more advanced features, ports and remote management capabilities, whereas unmanaged switches are more plug-and-play. The demands of your network will dictate what type of switch you need. Do-it-yourselfers have a better chance of getting an unmanaged switch up and running with minimum difficulty. Managed switches may require more know-how--or a networking consultant.
Because of the significant price difference between managed and unmanaged switches, we list Fast versions of the first and gigabit versions of the latter. For example, the $139 (all prices street) Linksys SD2008 is an eight-port unmanaged gigabit switch that will appeal to businesses needing lots of bandwidth for multimedia and VoIP. Compare it to 3Com's OfficeConnect Gigabit Switch 8, which also clocks in at $139, and SMC Networks' eight-port gigabit SMC8508T EZ Switch, which is even more affordable at $105. Any of these are no-lose options for small offices or workgroups in need of expansion. Alternatively, they offer a cheap and easy way for those with established networks to start the migration from older, 10Mbps hardware.
If you're connecting a larger number of PCs, you may want the more robust switching features and remote management capability of a managed switch. Power over Ethernet, or PoE, is a term you'll often see popping up in this regard. It means that electricity runs over the Ethernet cable to power networking clients like IP telephones, webcams or wireless access points, minimizing the need for inconvenient power cords. The $1,300 Adtran NetVanta 1224ST PoE features 24 Fast Ethernet ports with full power provided to each. The $1,199 Netgear ProSafe FSM7326P Layer 3 switch also comes with 24 Fast Ethernet ports, two gigabit ports and PoE. If that's more power than you need, D-Link's Web Smart DES-1316 features 16 ports, half of which have PoE, for an affordable $449.
Also check with Cisco, particularly its Catalyst line. The 2950 series is a good place for growing businesses to start. Rapidly expanding businesses and larger businesses will find plenty there to keep busy. Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve line is another strong source for networking gear. All the manufacturers we've covered offer a variety of port counts and managed and unmanaged hardware to fit any network need. If you've already invested in a particular brand of equipment, that is a good place to start when shopping for new gear to expand your network.