Outside In

Originally published in the July 1998 Computer Shopper ExtraFor a small company, a networking consultant can mean the difference between a smooth-sailing LAN and a tangle of useless hardware. But deciding when it's time to bring in someone from the outside, as well as working to make the relationship a positive one, can be tough—unless you're clear about your expectations from the beginning.

Originally published in the July 1998 Computer Shopper Extra

For a small company, a networking consultant can mean the difference between a smooth-sailing LAN and a tangle of useless hardware. But deciding when it's time to bring in someone from the outside, as well as working to make the relationship a positive one, can be tough—unless you're clear about your expectations from the beginning. So says Bob Obrinsky, vice president of New York-based Koe Connections, a consulting company that specializes in system integration and networking.

"The biggest problem we've found is that many small businesses don't have a clear goal in mind," Obrinsky says. "They don't know what they want to do with the network, so they don't know what they want."

Koe Connections, which has been in business since 1992, has done everything from functioning as a system integrator to installing networks to recommending where businesses should go for network cabling. Its goal is to offer a full menu of services, so small and not-so-small businesses can choose just the services they require. But no matter how much or how little a business uses a consultant, it still must have someone on staff who has some technical knowledge.

"We find that it works best if there's someone at the client business who knows what they want and need," Obrinsky says. "It's increasingly important that someone have a good working knowledge of Windows 95 and Windows NT from both the desktop and server perspective. And if they're going to run a Novell network, they should know something about that, too."

Is It Time Yet?

While there are no hard-and-fast rules about how large a company must be before it's ready for a network, there are some basic rules of thumb.

"If you have five computers, you're a good candidate for a network," Obrinsky says. "Small businesses need to ask themselves how serious it would be if they lost data. If the answer is 'disastrous,' it's definitely time to set up a network as a common repository for data that can be backed up frequently." Of course, there are other scenarios where a network can be an important asset for a small business.

"If it takes hours to get a report printed because you first have to zip the files, then walk the floppy over to someone else's system, that's a bad sign," Obrinsky says. "And if you're not happy with the print results, you're really ready for a networked printer."

For small businesses, the Internet can be invaluable. But many find that until they set up a network, the cost of bringing the Web to every desk is prohibitive.

"Sharing a modem or a dedicated dial-up connection through a router is considerably cheaper than providing a connection at every desk," Obrinsky says. And it's this kind of cost savings that prompts many businesses to leap into the networking pool.

Time is Money

Although a network can save money for a small business and make it more productive, setting one up is still a large and sometimes costly undertaking. And this is an area where small businesses sometimes run into problems with their consultants.

"Most small businesses underestimate the amount of time and money it takes to get a network up and running," Obrinsky notes. "They think it's like setting up a desktop system, so they're surprised by the cost and time estimates the consultant gives them."

In his experience, many small businesses then try to cut corners wherever they can. It's usually the cable installation where they find the most leeway, but according to Obrinsky, it's one of the worst places to try to save a buck.

"If one installer quotes a price of $220 a circuit, and another quotes $180, almost everyone will go with the lower price," he says. "But over the long haul, it makes more sense to go with the installer who's more reliable. If your cabling is bad, everyone will be troubleshooting it for years to come. You'll call in your consultant because your server's down, but it will really be a cable problem." Besides cabling, small businesses often run into problems with leading-edge technology.

"We have real fear of the dot-zero release," Obrinsky remarks. "Small businesses are better off waiting for a technology to shake out before they adopt it. They don't have the resources to debug all the problems that come with the first release of a product." Obrinsky himself admits to running into problems with brand-new hardware platforms.

"We've found that software support lags behind the launch of new hardware. So we're paying for hardware features that either haven't been implemented yet, or there's no software to take advantage of," he says. "Now we tell clients it's better to be on the leading edge, rather than the cutting edge."

If a company decides to throw caution to the wind and go with the cutting edge, it's vital that it makes sure its consultant has the experience, resources, and contacts to rectify a problem, Obrinsky advises.

No matter what path you take or how good your consultant is, one day he or she will go home. What happens to your network then? If you've chosen your consultant wisely and made some preparations, it all keeps running like a well-tuned Ferrari. But the small business needs to be ready to take control of the network once the consultant leaves the building.

"The majority of networks cause problems for a small company because no one takes charge. It's the end users who cause most of the trouble, not the hardware," Obrinsky says. "Someone needs to make sure that what people are doing on their desktops isn't ruining creativity. A network is no good unless you can quickly see what's going on with every piece of equipment running off it and fix the problems. End users often come up with custom configurations and setups that are quite creative, but bad for productivity. A network that doesn't make you more productive is worse than no network at all."

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