The Best Network Gear for Small and Medium-Size Businesses

Organizations focus on fulfilling missions. Whether the goal is producing products, delivering services or powering causes, rarely is success possible without a capable underlying technological infrastructure. Something must empower the directors’, managers’, employees’ and volunteers’ efforts fulfilling the functions and tasks they perform in pursuit of a broader mission.

And now, more than ever in the face of intense worldwide tensions, unprecedented Western sanctions and credible threats of Russian state-sponsored retaliatory cyber aggression, the underlying technological infrastructure plays a critical role in any organization’s capacity to fulfill its mission. Never before have small and medium-size businesses, in particular, faced such an intimidating combination: insidious cyber threats, the need to empower users to work from a variety of locations and the necessity of properly structuring business continuity and disaster recovery efforts.

The resulting challenges are assuredly complex and prioritize the importance of solid foundational technological elements, namely capable network gear, without which almost every organization’s operations come to an immediate halt, thereby prompting disruptions, outages and losses, among other risks. How can organizations—small and medium businesses, in particular, which must maximize IT investments while minimizing spend and addressing the myriad competing needs all organizations experience—best position themselves to guard against cyber threats while continuing to empower users to fulfill their roles and obligations?

Here’s what SMBs need to know.

First, it’s important to understand the various categories of network equipment and why the functions those categories address are so necessary. Second, organizations must learn which products fulfill those corresponding functions best, and why.

Network equipment powers a wide range of services within even small firms:

· Network switching
· Wireless connectivity
· Routing and remote connectivity
· Firewall services
· Business continuity
· Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS)

Each of these elements fulfills an important role. Here’s a closer look at the functions of each category.

Network switching

Users are connected to one another and other resources via physical networks frequently consisting of wired connections. Ubiquitous Ethernet cabling traditionally connects laptop and desktop computers, servers and VOIP telephones, among other equipment, due in part to its reliable performance.

Because organizations leverage the facility of as few devices as possible, including a single Internet connection and a minimum number of hardware components not only for cost efficiency’s sake but to simplify network topologies and the corresponding administration, support and troubleshooting, small and medium-sized businesses are often dependent upon virtual local area networks, known as VLANs in the IT trade. VLANs permit supporting a competing mix of network traffic, some of which (like voice packets) requires much higher priority handling than, say, video packets that can be buffered on a local system before beginning playback to therefore accommodate any momentary hesitations that might otherwise occur due to excessive network traffic or intermittent but short-lived delays.

Budget-priced network switches, however, don’t usually support the management of such networks. For this reason, SMBs should purchase business-grade equipment, such as models offered by the following manufacturers:

But there are yet additional ways computers, users and networks connect, too.

Wireless connectivity

WiFi has become more than just a convenience for businesses; SMBs have become dependent upon capable wireless networks to connect smartphones, tablet computers and workers roaming offices with laptops. Surveillance cameras, WiFi-enabled VOIP telephone handsets and even refrigerators and coffee machines are increasingly requiring wireless connectivity, too.

As with other network gear, a variety of manufacturers target the SMB space with wireless equipment designed to be both secure and affordable, including:

Before wireless connections can prove truly helpful, though, they also typically require Internet connectivity, which brings us to the next set of network equipment necessary within most every SMB organization.

Routing and remote connectivity

Routers play a critical role connecting an organization and its users to the Internet. Email, VOIP telephony and cloud applications all, of course, require the Internet. But these devices play a critical secondary role, too, connecting both sites (such as branch offices and other locations) and staff working from remote locations to one another and the organization’s systems and data.

Because cyberattack risks pose existential threats to businesses, Internet and remote connections must be secure. Firewalls, then, not only enable the connectivity required permitting daily operations, but these devices must also prevent unauthorized users—including criminals, malicious actors and even state-sponsored hackers—from breaching an organization’s defenses, corrupting data, compromising sensitive information and triggering failures, downtime and outages.

Gone are the days even a small SOHO firm can safely get by using consumer-grade equipment. Fortunately, a number of manufacturers produce routers that match SMB needs and budgets, including:

Routers, however, are incomplete anymore without an important accompaniment: active security services.

Firewall security services

Connectivity is but one of the functions a business-grade firewall fulfills. Government authorities and cybersecurity experts all now agree everyone from public offices and private-sector businesses to nonprofit organizations should deploy professional-grade firewalls capable of running active security services at the

network’s perimeter (which is where routers are located) to detect and block an ever-expanding variety of malicious connection attempts.

In other words, the hardware router is but one element composing a sound cyber protection strategy. These devices must now also feature active security services that inspect data packets, Internet traffic and connection requests to determine the validity of those requests and automatically block potentially malicious traffic. The firewall an SMB selects should also maintain detailed log files, send administrators alerts when certain conditions are met and adjust to new threats as vulnerabilities are identified.

Most every SMB-grade firewall manufacturer offers such security services. SMBs should plan on budgeting two expenses associated with firewalls and their corresponding services. The first is the expense of the router, typically a one-time charge, although many firms have begun choosing to wrap lease payments or subscription fees within broader IT support and service contracts. The second expense is the actual security services subscription, typically billed on an annual basis.

Once an active security services subscription is mated to an SMB-grade firewall, organizations should turn their attention to planning for business continuity and disaster recovery, in the event a crisis arises. Floods, fires, earthquakes and other disasters remain a possibility for which contingencies should be in place.

Business continuity

Hardware failures, ransomware attacks and other disasters regularly plague private-sector businesses and non-profit organizations. According to published reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states 40 percent of businesses do not reopen following a disaster. FEMA warns another 25 percent of those that do reopen fail within one year due to the disaster. Data reported by the US Small Business Administration is even more dire, with published claims stating over 90 percent of companies fail within two years of experiencing a disaster.

Multiple strategies, properly coordinated and aligned, can work together to bolster an organization’s business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) defenses. A single small network device, sometimes referred to as a BCDR appliance, can back up important information to the cloud. These cloud-based backups can be stored as individual snapshots, permitting organizations to recover operations, including from alternative locations, simply by downloading the needed snapshot to systems at whichever location proves best for the organization at the time. Such appliances may also include optional services designed to protect backups and snapshots from encryption and corruption common with ransomware and other cyberattacks.

The segment’s become so important that small and medium-size businesses can now choose from a variety of BCDR appliances and services, including:

Another option, particularly for small offices, is the deployment of a hardened appliance that protects onsite data from fires, floods and even earthquakes. Protected storage drives packed inside a hardened case, such as those offered by ioSafe, help ensure local copies of important data remain available. However, extra diligence is required when working with locally connected backups to ensure those backups remain protected from common ransomware attacks, which can compromise and destroy the backup data, too.

Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS)

No networks, however, can run optimally if they’re not properly powered. And because network components are particularly sensitive to even minor fluctuations in electricity, common brownouts and even blackouts can destroy delicate electronic circuits and render network gear inoperable. Operations, subsequently, can come to an abrupt halt.

Battery backups, also known as Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS), properly paired with the electrical requirements of the network gear they power, provide protection from common electrical issues and assist networks in powering continued reliable operations. While battery backups typically aren’t designed to power an organization through any extended downtime—generators are more common for such purposes—a variety of options are available that specifically target SMB needs, including models sold by the following:

While Internet service provider modems and telephony equipment constitute other common gear often found in server rooms and network closets, the network components reviewed within this article address most of the network-specific equipment SMBs typically rely upon and can actually select to fulfill daily operations. With these network-related devices properly specified and configured, the fundamental IT foundations are formed upon which SMBs can then build. Once the underlying network is in place, SMBs can get to work servicing their missions.