From real estate agencies working out of newly constructed shared offices, to manufacturing companies with expansive warehouse and machinery space, to large law firms in historical buildings, we encounter a variety of network configurations and needs for customers in the SMB market. With so much potential variation, its critical to determine how the existing network is setup as well as what their future network needs are going to be. More often than not, this isn’t an easy task. Physical cabling, bandwidth, firewall, and switching requirements are all things that must be evaluated, preferably well ahead of any install date. While an in depth breakdown is beyond the scope of a short blog post, I’d like to give a brief rundown of some important things to consider when evaluating a hosted VoIP solution with a customer.
Is the cabling in the building up to date?
The short answer is, most customers will already have Cat 5E cabling in their building and that’s all they will need. This is the current standard and is more than enough for the average SMB customer. If a customer is in a very old building and has Cat 3, then they should really consider getting the building rewired if at all possible. Cat 3 only supports transfer rates up to 10Mbps and this is going to prove insufficient for most customers. Higher bandwidth cabling like Cat 6/6a supports up to 10Gbps transfers and is likely overkill for almost all SMB customers currently.
What are the bandwidth needs, now and in the future?
Going right along with the physical cabling is the overall bandwidth needs. Many small businesses don’t need anything more than what is commonly available in their area, typically between 100Mbps and 1Gbps. This is assuming the location is not in a rural area where internet options are typically much more limited. It is also important to note that these speeds may not be symmetrical, so this needs to be taken into account when determining the bandwidth needs of the customer. The final consideration is whether the customer is going to have wifi access, and if that wifi is going to be public, private or both.
What kind of switches are needed?
Switches are a bit of a mystery to a lot of SMB customers, especially those closer to the “S” than the “M” side. Many have heard of a switch before, but they aren’t really sure what they do, if they need one or even if they already have one. It’s very likely that some sort of switch is going to be needed. Only the smallest customers with the simplest of setups do not need a switch. We typically recommend a managed, PoE, VLAN capable switch for our standard deployments. The PoE capability allows the switch to provide power to the phones so no separate power supplies are required. VLANs allow the phone and data traffic to be separated, which is generally cleaner and makes it easier to troubleshoot issues. The switch being managed simply means it can be configured with a variety of options such as VLANs and typically has remote administration and event logging. By contrast, unmanaged switches will at most be able to provide PoE, but are unable to be configured or administered otherwise.
Does there need to be any special routing or firewalling at the site?
Firewalling and routing are likely the most foreign subjects to SMB customers, especially those on the smaller side. The good news is that if a customer is big enough to need more advanced routing, firewalling or circuit failover then SD-WAN is probably an easy choice. SD WAN is quickly gaining ground as the most deployed routing/firewalling solution due to the ease of setup and scalability. It encompasses everything from simple circuit failover using physical and/or wireless connections to complicated multi-site routing, traffic filtering and inspection, VPN configuration and much more. Most of these services and configurations can simply be added on at a later date as well, so these easily scale up to meet growing customer needs. In the past, this type of setup would require costly hardware, a dedicated server room and expensive specialized IT staff to configure and maintain.
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