Adding a router to a computer network in a small business
What to look for when adding a router to a computer network in a small business will depend to some extent on the answer to the question of how small is small. The point of that question revolves around what your router needs to be able to deliver in terms of security and traffic flow, and we’ll get to it in a moment, but there are a set of criteria you can use to decide which kind of router better suits your needs – and happily, they’re fairly binary, black-and-white questions.
Do you want wires with that?
Routers come in two basic forms – wired routers and wireless routers. And happily, when adding a router to a computer network, you’re likely to be able to make an immediate, instinctive choice as to which suits your setup better. Wired routers involve… well, wires, connecting every computer to the router. That means if you’re a one-person operation or there are a handful of employees in what is realistically one room, you can productively use a wired router. There are benefits to doing so – a stronger and significantly more stable connection to the internet with less opportunity for bad actors to use the connection for nefarious purposes being the most obvious.
If you have more staff than fit comfortably within one room, or you want, for instance, to work on a laptop in various rooms in your home, wireless is the way to go – it will be slightly slower and less stable, but it stops you having to run wired net connections where you or any of your staff might conceivably want to work at some time.
While wired routers have in no sense died out yet, there are moves in the laptop manufacturing community to phase them into history by, for instance, not including ports on some machines that can even support wired connections. That said, a slightly unexpected backlash from the rise of hybrid working has meant that some companies – and some staff – have sought to re-establish wired routers as a norm, not just because of their more stable and safe connections, but to reinforce a sense of the work-life balance for people working from home.
Routers usually come in single-band, dual-band, and tri-band variants. This is nothing to worry about. To some extent, bands are like lanes on the highway. If there are only a handful of you trying to push your traffic down the road (in this case, the road between your computer and the internet), you’re probably fine with a single-band 2.4 GHz router. If there are around ten of you using the same router, you might actively benefit from trading up to a dual-band router, which as the name suggest, gives you two bands of traffic – one at 2.4GHz, and one at 5.0GHz. That means you can separate your traffic – some users can take one “lane,” an others the other, so that your congestion (which in this case equates to slow or dropped or dropped connections during the course of business) is minimized, and everyone can get on with their day without resorting to the office equivalent of leaning on the horn or deploying unbecoming hand gestures.
Tri-band routers are the equivalent of having the highway to yourself. They’re the equivalent of business class flying – but usually, as on an airline, you’ll pay for the privilege they give you. Tri-band routers let you dedicate a band to particular devices, so just as a “for instance,” if you still have an office printer, and everyone connects to it wirelessly, you can dedicate a whole band to just printer traffic, so your connection to the cloud isn’t slowed down by Janice from accounts printing out the 8,000 pages of figures she needs to collate to keep you from committing inadvertent tax fraud.
Wired or wifi computer connection?
Tri-band routers are glorious, but annoyingly, they’re unnecessary if you’re choosing a router for home or small business use. By the time your business needs tri-band, you’re stretching the definition of a small business to breaking point.
Still, they’re cool, and if you have the disposable income, don’t in any way let us stop you from embracing the future-proof technologies of your medium-sized business future.
Choose your ports, but pile them on.
Routers come with two kinds of ports – WAN and LAN. WAN ports (Wide Area Network) do the thing you’re probably expecting first and foremost – they connect any machine that can access them to the wonders and the horrors of the internet. LAN ports (Local Area Network) on the other hand connect all machines that can access them to every other machine that can access them but which shares the same IP address.
Just as it’s a good idea to look for a router that has enough bands to keep all the likely traffic in your business moving smoothly, it’s also a good idea to look for one with more than one WAN port. Why? Because the more machines you have trying to access the network through a single port, the more of a bottleneck you create, and the more pressure you put on a single point of failure. If for some reason your single WAN port goes kaput, that’s your whole business stranded with only the data-based internet of people’s individual smartphones. That’s what’s known as significantly sub-optimal – but it’s worth keeping in mind, because lots of manufacturers are quite happy to sell routers with just a single WAN port. Resist the temptation to buy them, unless your business is particularly small, you can lay your hands on a replacement almost instantly, or you really don’t have the cash to level up to a multi-WAN port option.
In routers, it’s OK to be a speed-freak.
There’s an old saying – “Sometimes, more isn’t better – sometimes, it’s just more.” That’s homely and sweet and applies in no sense whatsoever to speed when it comes to your router-buying journey. There is literally no business in existence that opted for slow connection through anything other than economic imperative. Get the fastest, most modern router you can afford. Don’t even think about going for second-hand, it’s the falsest of false economies. Look for a router that can handle the latest standards like 802.11. 802.11n is a good baseline but if you can afford it, go for something like the 802.11ax, which should give you all the speed you could possibly need in a home or small business router.
Control and priority.
It’s fairly standard in the 2020s for routers to come with a feature that lets you prioritize your network traffic, so for instance, you can give higher priority to your video conferencing than your web browsing, because the effect of connection latency is felt much more keenly in the first instance than the second. It’s the difference between it taking seconds to connect to a website and your client freezing and possibly dropping off the call just as they’re about to award you a contract.
While it’s a fairly standard feature these days, don’t get a router that doesn’t include this capability, because it can save you many headaches, and also helps you future-proof your business against ongoing developments in technology.
The potential for a VPN.
Even five years ago, we wouldn’t necessarily have said you needed to look for a VPN router, because the likelihood of small businesses or domestic users being targeted by cybercriminals was very much smaller then than it is now.
But criminals are now expressly targeting smaller businesses, and so if your router budget will stretch to it, you’re well advised in the 2020s to pay extra for a router that includes the option to deploy a VPN (Virtual Private Network). These days, they’re usually fairly simple for even a non-technologist to configure, and they offer a level of cybersecurity with which routers with no VPN function simply cannot compete.
All of these elements are worth thinking about when adding a router into a computer network. The precise combination of elements that are worth your particular router-money will depend on factors like the size and location of your business, the layout of your home, and so on. But if you keep these elements at the front of your mind and remember to check them, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.
25 September 2023
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