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Even very small business is going high-tech with networks, according to International Data Corp. More than half of networked businesses with under 20 employees have servers. Such technology speeds Net connections and supports more sophisticated software without requiring a lot of tech staff. Rising spending (chart) by companies of fewer than 100 workers is due to falling prices and more Internet/Web use.EDITED BY EDITH UPDIKEReturn to top

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POINTS TO PONDER BEFORE BUYING A NETWORK

Even while small businesses move en masse to computer networks, installing one at your company should not be done by the seat of your pants. To learn more about what small companies should consider before taking the plunge, Enterprise Online's Dennis Berman spoke to Steve Rigney, owner of Lab Group, a Destin (Fla.) network consulting firm and recent author of TCP/IP: A Survival Guide for Users ($24.95, MIS Press).Q: What are the first things a small business should analyze before going to a networK?

A: The software dictates the hardware. Before you consider installing the network, understand what you're going to do with it. Is it because you want to use software that's networkable? Most people don't install a network just to share printer or Internet access. It's based on some sort of software use.

The first and foremost rule is that you must find out from that software vendor what network they support. Some may run on Windows 95, some may only be Windows-based. But if you don't go with what they recommend, and you have a problem, they won't help you. The first thing out of their mouths is "we only support Novell NetWare."Q: What products should you consider if you're really small -- say just two or three computers?

A: For small peer-to-peer networking [usually five computers or less], Windows 98 is the best choice. Every copy comes with free, full built-in networking. But if you have a particular application and it happens to be DOS-based -- and many programs for insurance, and doctors' and lawyer's offices are still DOS-based, then your best bet is to go with a higher-end network like Novell NetWare. It can handle almost any kind of client -- Macintoshes, DOS, Windows 95, Windows 3.0. No matter what the client or workstation, chances are thay can connect to it

But it really depends on what you want to do . For Windows 98, if I want to let you see my files, and I want to print to your printer, it's a 30-minute job to install. However, Windows 98 no longer comes with built-in E-mail. It only comes wth an E-mail client, not a server. Say you want to install a network for E-mail, by the way, you'll need an E-mail post office, so you should go with Microsoft Exchange. By the way, that requires Windows NT. The whole point is sitting down and thinking about you want to be when you grow up.

Also, Windows 98 by itself doesn't allow you to share a dial-up Internet connection. There is a program by Artisoft called i.share that runs on Windows 98 machines, and it connects to the Internet. Every PC on that network can use it to send E-mail, but if you get 5 people surfing the Web across a single 28.8 modem, it's going to be slow.Q: What about taking it to the next level? A computer network for 50 computers, say?

A: If all your applications are running on Windows, your best bet is Windows NT. If you're still running DOS-based applications, chances are better for Novell NetWare. One more thing: If you're simply opening up a file, and using an application on a hard drive, Novell NetWare is faster. But if all the processing is taking place on the server, Windows NT is better. Once again, it really comes down to the software dictating the hardware.Q: What's the biggest mistake small businesses make when moving to a network?

A: The biggest mistake I see is from people running older programs. All of them want to be in 1998, to say to hell with their software, and that everyone ought to be running Windows 98 because it's brand new. That ends up screwing up legacy softwareQ: Any guidelines for networking costs?

A: A rule of thumb for peer-to-peer networking is give or take $100 per PC. For Windows NT or Novell Netware, it's about $200 per PC -- not couting any extra software you might buy to run on the network.:Q: What about maintenance costs?

A: Other than the regular "help desk stuff" -- "Suzy deleted her printer driver" -- networks are pretty low maintenance. Ninety percent of problems are caused by user error. You do need to constantly check for viruses and make sure the backups are working.Q: How have small businesses' perceptions of networks changed over the years?

A: When I first started consulting, about seven and a half years ago, no one had a network. Bascially because they were very expensive, and they were rocket science. Most people were just running word processing, and small biz didn't have a need for a network. The thing that's made the biggest change is the price dropping down.

In the future, the biggest thing I'm seeing is businesses opening up their small peer-to-peer networks to the rest of the world. I live in a beach resort in Florida, where most of my clients have a whole bunch of people sitting there answering phones. But they'll soon let people book their own rooms over the Web.

Or say you're a mortgage company and work closely with a bank. Normally, you have to send them files overnight, and they have to type them up by hand. Companies are now opening up their network to other networks, losing their whole paper trail. Even for small compaies, networks are allowing employees to work from home and vendors to access data.EDITED BY EDITH UPDIKEReturn to top


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