Surviving the Network Integration Ordeal
Too often, fears of costs and downtime will cause a business to put off the task of network integration for far too long. With the right plans and procedures in place, though, companies can minimize network integration pain and risk, clean out the cobwebs that are growing in long-forgotten network corners, and come out the other end with a rock-solid, integrated system.
For many small businesses, the challenges associated with network integration can actually put a stop to integration before it gets started. Concerns about cost, worries about the potential of business downtime and fears of implementation issues can lead businesses to put off both minor and long overdue network changes and improvements.
However, by taking a few specific steps early in the process, and reaching out to IT professionals for help when necessary, businesses can minimize the headaches and maximize the value associated with an integrated network. Here are a few tips on identifying and overcoming typical network integration challenges.
Perform a Physical Network Audit
One of the most challenging parts of integrating networks comes in trying to diagnose the source of any problems that arise. And when it comes to troubleshooting issues like network integrity and speed, the components you choose can have a big impact on performance.
The first step in meeting network integration challenges is to take a look at your current physical network setup and determine if it is working for your needs. Are you relying on a seven-year-old, off-brand router to deliver a strong network signal? Is your current wiring and infrastructure set up to meet your company's daily network traffic needs? If you haven't revisited your network setup in some time, you'll benefit from taking an inventory of your hubs, access points, routers, switches and even cabling. You may find that hardware which was put in service as a "temporary" solution has well outlasted its usefulness, to the detriment of your network.
Go ahead and replace those components that you suspect may be having a potentially negative impact on your network performance. By doing so, you'll be improving your current network and setting yourself up for successful network integration and improvement.
Determine Your Basic Needs
The next way to overcome network integration challenges is to develop a solid idea of what hardware and software needs you are likely to have and to bring them all together in one place so that the network can be properly configured for use and all outside elements (e.g. workstations, peripherals) can be properly integrated.
What size and type of server is best suited for your needs? Should you consider a virtual computing environment? How will you manage network backups? What power protection products must be implemented? Putting in place the basic components of your network's infrastructure will create a solid foundation for your integration activities.
Determine Your Business Needs
Now that you've created a solid network foundation, the challenge becomes integrating your business processes into your network in a cost- and time-effective way. Each business has different needs, but many of the process questions remain the same across the business spectrum: Will your users need the ability to print and access files over the network? Do you have remote users who will need access? Will you be handling fax services through your network? Do you need to provide any collaboration tools? How will your current sales and accounting software be affected? Should you consider Web applications as an alternative to traditional software licenses?
If you're like many small businesses, this step may seem a bit overwhelming; after all, there are so many software and hardware packages to choose from, each with their own features, benefits and limitations. This is where the services of an IT consultant may be helpful. IT consultants will be able to help assemble all of the necessary hardware and software to form your network's infrastructure. Also, their real-world experience with a variety of vendors means that consultants are able to recommend solutions based on hands-on experience rather than just what's on the box. Many small businesses find that an investment in an IT consultant at this point in the integration is one that pays dividends in the future.
Perform Integration Implementation
With all of your previous networking integration challenges overcome, it's time to face the final challenge: the challenge of actually implementing the integration. This is the time when all of your hardware, software and network solutions come together and work smoothly, or begin showing incompatibilities and creating issues.
At this point, it's time to plug in your workstations and test out the network, ensuring that your employees can access the files and peripherals they need, that business applications are working as expected, and that proper anti-virus and other security mechanisms are in place and functioning normally. It's also the time that you note any integration issues or problems that occur and work with your vendors to troubleshoot concerns and find solutions or workarounds.
As we discussed earlier, at times like this, an IT professional can be a wise investment. Businesses can lose valuable time and money trying to track down the cause of an integration issue or diagnose a network problem. That's why many small businesses hand off the implementation and integration tasks to an expert who can anticipate and avoid problems, but whom also knows how to efficiently solve any issues that are likely to occur.
The Biggest Network Integration Challenge of All: Inaction
Whether you decide to work with an IT professional or handle the network integration process on your own, know that you have overcome the biggest challenge of all -- the challenge to improve your business by integrating your network.
By taking the steps to identify your current network assets and create an inventory of what you really need, then mapping business processes to technology needs and finally pulling everything together and making it happen, you're making a solid investment in your business' future.
David Eisner is the president and CEO of Dataprise.