A network can be described as the ICT backbone of an organisation, without which the infrastructure cannot function, writes Riaan Leuschner, MD of Nology. It creates the foundation for a host of things from applications to security, redundancy, fail-over technology, storage and high availability.

Networking infrastructure has come a long way from its beginnings. From the necessity of having miles and miles of tangled, spaghetti like cables to connect PCs and servers, networks have evolved into highly sophisticated architectures with technology to meet growing needs and demands.
Some of the advances in networking technology over the last several years have been the advent of Internet Protocol (IP), which enables organisations to take advantage of tools such as Voice over IP (VoIP), IP telephony, video conferencing, and even IP security cameras. Add to this 3G, WiFi and remote connectivity and there is a definite move towards wireless networking with ever increasing levels of functionality. This evolution has taken networking to a new level, allowing businesses to operate more efficiently and without interruption.
However, Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) often experience difficulties when it comes to leveraging the latest in network technologies, as the tools have often not been designed with these users in mind.
From a cost perspective, the layout and setup of a network can be prohibitively expensive, and the need to accommodate potential future growth complicates the process for smaller enterprises, as they often need to be able to scale quickly. The question of how many ports to buy, combined with need to upgrade to keep up with the growth of the business increases complexity. Wireless networks are easier to scale, but with this comes an increase in expense. While cable and hard wired networks are cheaper once installed, one needs to bear in mind the initial outlay of laying the infrastructure, as well as remember that they can only be scaled to grow to the number of ports on the switch.
The best advice for SMEs is for them to understand that some initial capital outlay is necessary, and that this is one aspect of the business where they cannot afford to skimp. Buying the right hardware that allows scalability from the outset is a vital step, and it is also important to purchase a platform that will remain consistent over several years, for example purchasing long-term technology such as IP over analogue telephony.
That said however, due to the complexity of networks the convergence phenomenon is becoming increasingly important, especially in the SME space. From voice to data to video, all of these technologies are coming together, making network infrastructure less complicated and enabling SMEs to take advantage of increasing networking functionality. Convergence is enabling a host of technology and tools to be available over a single IP network, which simplifies the process of implementing a network considerably.
Some points for SMEs to keep in mind when designing a networking infrastructure:
* Redundancy – this involves ensuring that the network is always up and running, online and available. To ensure redundancy, technology such as a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) and a PoE  (Power over Ethernet) network design can be helpful, as having a generator to power everything can be expensive and PoE ensure that power is only needed for the server and switches (POE) to keep the phones and network running.
* VoIP  – Voice over IP allows easy and quick expansion of voice communications, making scalability simpler and enabling branches to be interconnect cheaper than using analogue technology.
* Security  – Network security is vital to ensure protection from viruses, hackers and other malicious attacks that could compromise the integrity of the network.
* Reliability – Ensuring that the network is always available may involve back up fail over internet connectivity such as 3G or iBurst, to ensure that even if fixed line ADSL fails, business can continue as usual. New routers that can handle both of these connectivity options simplify this process and have built in firewalls and other security options, making them ideal for smaller enterprises.
While the SME market is one that has been neglected from a networking perspective, the increasing prevalence of convergence as well as the introduction of intelligent all-in-one devices that take care of a host of networking options from wireless to wired to ADSL and back up connectivity, with built in security and single device support, means that networking has become far simpler for SMEs than ever before.
As the smaller business market makes up a large proportion of the South African business economy, this new focus on networking technology for SMEs will ensure that these businesses can continue to grow, thrive and be competitive in the market.