How to select the best WAN and Internet connections for your SMB
Understanding the Wide Area Network (WAN) and Internet connectivity options available to small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) and selecting the best choice for connecting your organization to the Internet, cloud services and even directly to other locations and sites can prove confusing and complex. Unfortunately, the technology industry doesn’t make the process any easier with its collection of corresponding acronyms, including MPLS, SD-WAN, WLAN and WWAN.
Here’s a brief primer on the basic network and WAN technologies available to your SMB. This quick tutorial also presents fundamental questions your SMB should ask when seeking to confirm it employs the best telecommunications circuits for its specific needs.
Confirming a few fundamental networking facts may better assist SMB users, managers and owners in making sense of various telecommunications circuit options. Let’s get started.
Most computers, printers and similar devices are interconnected within a physical office by standard Ethernet cabling connected to a network switch. Those networks, which can include dozens of such switches, are frequently referred to as local area networks, or LANs. While offering reliable, high-speed connections capable of supporting considerable traffic when properly configured, LANs are typically limited in their geographic reach to a single location or building. Category 6 cabling, one of the most deployed solutions, enables communication speeds up to 10Gbps.
WiFi networks are common additions to LANs. Wireless local area networks, or WLANs, enable connecting various devices to an organization’s wired LAN, which typically still requires back–office physical cabling and network switches to tie everything together, but without the need for physical Ethernet cables. A wireless access point is usually installed and physically connected to a site’s LAN to permit receiving the wireless radio signals from devices connected via WiFi. WLAN advantages include the ability to connect equipment without having to run physical cabling to each device being connected, reliable connectivity when using business-grade equipment and speeds up to 1.3Gbps using WiFi 5 or 2-3Gbps (in actual practicality) using WiFi 6 technologies.
A WAN, on the other hand, refers to a telecom network outside the organization. WANs, in turn enable extending and interconnecting LANs regardless of their location. The LANs being connected by a WAN can be across town, in different states or even on different continents.
One fact that may help you better understand the differences between telecommunications circuits is to recognize WAN connections are not necessarily Internet connections. WAN circuits may connect an outlying site to a headquarters location, as opposed to the Internet. In other cases, WAN circuits, depending upon their configuration, may connect a site both to another site and to the Internet.
Numerous WAN types exist, including dedicated leased lines, digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable Internet, fiber Internet, Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) and Wireless WAN (WWAN).
A telecommunications circuit is nothing more than a pathway between two terminals (usually in different locations) over which communications are transmitted and received. Circuits can host one or more channels, meaning multiple simultaneous communications—including the transmission of voice, video and data signals—can occur over a circuit to enable enhanced performance and capacity. The ability to simultaneously support multiple channels also presents the opportunity to better balance loads.
Dedicated Leased Line
A dedicated leased line—such as a T1 or T3 circuit offering 1.5Mbps up to 44.7Mbps of throughput—is just as described: an exclusive physical connection between two sites that is always available for network communications. Typically a more expensive option, this WAN type offers reliable and consistent performance, including symmetrical speeds (meaning downstream speeds match upstream performance). Such circuits almost always include Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees that define specific performance, uptime and reliability characteristics. This combination of features subsequently makes dedicated leased lines safe bets for SMBs needing to connect important production systems and applications.
DSL circuits, which have seemingly lost popularity due to the rise of faster and competitively priced cable Internet services, use traditional copper telephone lines to transmit data. Often deployed within residential homes early in its adoption, small offices—including chiropractors, dentists, law offices, manufacturers and retail stores—also embraced the dedicated service that provides an exclusive (as in not shared with other customers) Internet connection.
When using DSL, customer sites must be located, however, within a reasonable distance (a couple miles) of the telephone provider’s central office to provide quality service. DSL circuits can provide both asymmetrical or symmetrical upload and download speeds. Asymmetric DSL, known as ADSL, can provide up to 24Mbps download speeds and up to 3Mbps upstream. Very-High-Bit-Rate DSL, known as VDSL, can provide download speeds up to 100Mbps and upstream capacity of 10Mbps. But because cable Internet is capable of much faster speeds, many SMBs turn to that alternative, instead.
Cable Internet, in many cities and regions, provides a cost-effective co-axial (cable)-based WAN connection capable of providing high performance, both upstream and downstream. Unlike dedicated circuits, however, cable Internet circuits collect traffic from multiple customers on equipment at a centrally located facility before that traffic is passed to the broader Internet, an architecture that can occasionally introduce temporary performance hits.
Although maximum speeds can vary depending upon peak usage, cable Internet service frequently offer downstream speeds up to 1Gbps and upstream capacity from 10Mbps to 50Mbps or more. Cable Internet providers have built out their networks resulting in service availability being widespread and competitively priced. When using cable Internet for Internet connectivity, organizations operating multiple sites need not use the same telecommunications provider in each market, although some advantages—including cost savings, simplified support and administration and matching Service Level Agreements (uptime guarantees)—can arise when doing so.
MPLS networks create dedicated, nonshared network connections between remote sites. The technology often works well connecting remote sites to headquarters offices or other branch locations, especially because such circuits almost always fulfill demanding QoS requirements and can integrate virtual private networks (VPN) connectivity to improve security.
Because MPLS are dedicated connections, they offer several advantages, including robust performance, reliable connectivity, enhanced security and the ability to adjust bandwidth to accommodate more traffic, should a growing company require such flexibility later. MPLS circuits also offer flexible traffic routing and engineering features and include support for multiple technologies to enable optimizing network routing.
Boasting such high-end capabilities—including both asymmetrical and symmetrical configurations and WAN speeds from a few Mbps up to several Gbps—it should come as no surprise that MPLS services are more expensive than many other WAN connections, though. They are also more complex to configure and administer and sometimes restrict an organization to working with the same telecom partner at each site where an MPLS connection is needed, although increasingly telecommunications carriers are offering interconnection capabilities not previously available.
Wireless WANs (WWANs) are cellular network solutions. Cellular providers have been aggressively building out their networks and one byproduct is faster, more widespread and increasingly reliable WWAN services are becoming available to connect remote offices and mobile users without having to deploy or maintain wired connections.
Performance is improving, too. WWAN speeds range from 10Kbps to a few hundred Kbps for 2G networks to 5Mbps to 100Mpbs for 4G LTE networks and up to 1Gpbs for 5G deployments.
Because WWAN connections are shared with other subscribers, however, performance capacities may vary and security concerns could arise. That said, WWAN traffic is typically encrypted to help secure communications. Carrier competition, meanwhile, is helping reduce the costs SMBs pay when deploying WWANs.
Just what is broadband Internet? Whereas some may think of broadband Internet as Internet or WAN connectivity provided via a fast cable Internet provider, broadband Internet refers to DSL, fiber optic, cable Internet and other connection technologies capable of providing upstream and downstream bandwidth of 25Mbps or faster.
SD-WANs are a little trickier compared to many traditional WAN options but have grown in popularity with many businesses. These circuits use software to define and architect wide area network connections connecting remote sites and providing Internet connectivity. They typically cost less than traditional WAN solutions and can provide better performance by automatically optimizing network traffic, but they’re also more complex to create and manage and, as can occur with MPLS circuits, may prove more complicated to administer when using different telecom providers, although provided management platforms assist managing SD-WAN configuration at different locations requiring such connectivity throughout an enterprise.
Note, some observers don’t technically consider SD-WANs to be independent WAN connections because SD-WANs don’t possess an actual physical network. Regardless of such semantics, SD-WANs are software-based solutions that optimize sending (and receiving) network traffic over a variety of different WAN solutions, such as an MPLS, broadband Internet circuit or even a cellular WWAN.
Speeds and performance vary widely for SD-WAN implementations. The type of WAN connection used, which can include MPLS circuits, broadband Internet services and 4G and 5G components, is a primary factor. And SD-WAN services can combine bandwidth from multiple providers and WAN connection types to provide improved capacity, which is another advantage the option provides SMBs. But because shared connections, such as those provided by some cable Internet and 5G providers might be employed, peak performance capabilities can vary.
Which WAN and Internet connections are best for your first?
There are several factors to address when determining which WAN and Internet connections are most appropriate for your SMB. The answers to the following seven questions can help determine the best solutions:
- What are our SMB’s specific bandwidth needs? If high performance capacity is the priority, cable Internet and other broadband Internet solutions may prove most appropriate.
- What WAN solutions are available in each area our SMB requires connectivity? If a specific WAN solution simply isn’t available in a required location, the technology isn’t a reasonable option for your SMB, so a second choice will likely prove necessary. Or, a WWAN implementation may make more sense if physical cable connections are an unreasonable proposition.
- How critical is security? Can the organization tolerate employing shared infrastructure solutions, such as cable Internet? Your SMB should carefully consider its security needs and determine its risk tolerance before signing any long-term contract.
- What role does cost play in selecting a WAN solution? Are security and reliability more important than cost management, or is cost containment a more pressing factor when selecting WAN solutions? Your SMB must prioritize its requirements, as demanding high performance, scalability, uptime and security typically runs counter to minimizing expenses.
- How important is scalability? As organizations grow, add or reduce sites or accommodate varying seasonal demands, an SMB might need to more easily add or reduce capacity without having to re-architect networks or deploy new solutions. The SMB should seek a WAN solution that can accommodate scalability if such flexibility is an important factor for the organization.
- How important is uptime? If reliability and the promise of rapidly restored services is a top priority, SMBs should favor a WAN solution possessing corresponding QoS and SLA guarantees.
- Are network management and monitoring capabilities important to our SMB? If your organization seeks to continually monitor its network connections, adjust traffic dynamically or configure more complex connectivity, a corresponding compatible solution (such as an MPLS or SD-WAN) may prove necessary.
Need help confirming the best WAN and Internet Connections for your SMB?
The variety of WAN and Internet connection technologies, combined with needs and requirements unique to each organization, can make it difficult to understand which telecommunications technology is (or which technologies are) the best choice or choices for your SMB. Louisville Geek can help, as we’ve been deploying, administering and supporting SMB WAN and Internet circuits—often planning the architecture and design before ground is even broken for new sites but also frequently for existing offices requiring a telecom makeover—for almost two decades.
You can get started by securely uploading a copy of your telecommunications invoice on the Louisville Geek portal using this link. As always, you can also reach a Louisville Geek technology expert by calling 502-897-7577 or emailing [email protected], too.