While wireless routers generally come with easy-to-use instructions on how to set up a wireless network, small businesses need to pay attention to certain settings that will ensure the most critical applications keep running smoothly. Like many things, setting up technology for business use is not quite the same as setting up for home use.
Router setup has become much easier than it used to be, with clearly marked diagrams showing how to connect the cables and wizards that step you through the settings using easy-to-understand language. However, the process can still trip up business owners who may not be familiar with all the settings. In this Working Without Wires, we go over the most common pitfalls that expose your data and make sure your wireless network keeps your business running smoothly.
Pick Your Hardware
The first step, like many things, is to pick the right hardware. It's tempting to just go out and pick out the cheapest and flashiest router from Best Buy or Staples, because all routers are the same, right? Not exactly.
Consumer routers seem to have all the essential features, including compatibility with the IEEE 802.11n wireless networking standard, four (or so) Ethernet ports for things you need to plug in, wireless encryption, dual-band modes capable of operating on both 2.4GHz frequency and 5GHz, and a built-in firewall. Business-class routers take a step further, giving you control over the firewall to filter traffic, the ability to classify network traffic, an option to set up a VPN server for remote access, and Qualify of Service (QoS) to fine-tune VoIP for telephony purposes such as Skype.
Consumer routers are designed to be low-cost. Business-class routers focus on maximizing performance. When you are running your email, phone system, and other business applications on the same network, you don't want to skimp on performance. Imagine if you can't make a phone call because the colleague next to you is streaming video. You want to be able to prioritize network traffic, so that your phone systems and email always get bandwidth, or you are going to run into serious lag issues.
Here is a tip: consumer-grade routers may work for you if you are connecting five or fewer devices. When users start complaining the network is sluggish or that the Internet connection keeps dropping, you know you've exceeded the router's capabilities.
Consider, also, how many users you want on your network. You don't want to try to support too many users on the router, since you run the risk of overloading your network and crashing the router. To support more users, you will need to extend your network with an Access Point or two (or 10, depending on the size and number of users).
Consumer routers may have firewalls, but business routers generally offer advanced features including intrusion detection, antivirus, anti-spam, and content filtering. If you think you will need remote access to your network, VPN is also a must.
Depending on your broadband setup, you may have to buy your own router or the ISP may provide one. A few high-scoring routers suitable for small businesses include the Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart Wi-Fi Router $199.99 at Dell,Asus RT-AC66U Dual Band 3x3 802.11AC Gigabit Router $149.00 at Abt Electronics, and the Cisco RV110W Wireless-N VPN Firewall $51.90 at Amazon.
Once you have the right hardware, follow the instructions in the box to connect the router to your broadband connection, whether that is cable modem, DSL, WiMAX, FiOS, or something else. After you have connected everything, use your computer to get to the router's administrator interface via the Web browser.
The interface may vary slightly by brand and manufacturer, but you need to make sure you change the default password to a secure password. There are too many cases of businesses that were hacked because the attackers randomly tried their IP address and logged in with the default password. Turn on the firewall. Even if you don't do any fancy configurations, the fact that it is on provides better security than not having anything at all. Also, very important—turn on wireless encryption.
Now, it's tempting to just turn on WEP and be done with it. It's distressing that so many routers still offer WEP as an option—do not do it. Use WPA2, because it is much more secure. If you are going to be smart and put a lock on your wireless network to keep eavesdroppers and hackers out, why would you use a weak lock like WEP? And make sure to select a strong password/passphrase to secure your wireless network.
If you know what devices will be on the wireless network, I highly recommend using MAC Address filtering. This lets you specify the MAC Addresses of the devices so that only known devices are allowed on your network. This makes it less likely that a random person can hop on to your network (after guessing your password) from a rogue device. Some routers have the capability to detect rogue Access Points. If you are using APs in your network to extend range and support more users, this is definitely a good thing to do.
Turn on VPN for remote access. It also helps to set up failovers so that if your main Internet connection fails, your router switches to a back-up connection so that your business keeps humming.
Business Wireless Networks Are More Robust
Small businesses like the fact that consumer routers are easy to set up and are not that expensive, but considering how important it is to have uptime and security, consumer routers just aren't enough. Be prepared to spend time going through each screen on your business-class router, from security, network management, QoS, firewall, and load balancing to make sure you are providing the best support for your business.