In today's innovative small businesses, the backbone of the computing infrastructure is the local area network (LAN). The true value of modern computing is, in fact, centered on the sharing of information within the business, accessing common resources, and collaborating to improve decision making, streamline processes, reduce overhead, and allow the effective participation of employees in the everyday digital life of the business.

Until recently, though, LANs were a lot less common among smaller businesses -- in most cases, their value was limited to sharing files across individual desktop computers, sharing printers locally connected, and sharing broadband Internet access. To achieve most of the advantages that come with collaboration, networks had to be outfitted with often very expensive and difficult to manage servers, imposing quite a leap in terms of IT support requirements.

Things have though changed quite a bit in the last few years and because of these three main thrusts, the popularity of LANs among small businesses has skyrocketed:

  • Increased availability of business grade online, multi-user software applications provided as a service and not requiring the installation of servers or local software;
  • Increased performance and lower cost of wireless networking hardware, allowing for the flexible deployment of wired and wireless network users at low cost and with high flexibility;
  • Growing availability of networked appliances, providing simple to use, task-oriented functionality to multiple network users.

The impact of networked appliances

The third of these factors is probably the least recognized, yet it has the most impact, primarily among operations with five to 25 employees. These are, in fact, the businesses most pressed to adopt servers, but often too reluctant to increase their IT overhead.

Many of the important functions that traditional servers could provide via dedicated software can today be found in individual, easy to setup, configure, and use appliances that in most cases are designed to be deployed with no or very limited use of specialized IT personnel. A simple example to illustrate the case is storage: up to a few years ago if you wanted secure, permission based access to a reliable shared data storage resource you had to deploy at the cost of a few thousand dollars a small server with multiple hard disk drives and its own operating system. Today you can buy for a few hundred dollars a network attached storage (NAS) device that plugs directly into the network, and offers the same features with very simple setup and management interface.

Most of the functionalities important to small businesses that were available only through servers are now available through appliances.

Common, secure file storage and sharing

As mentioned, NAS devices are the simplest and most effective way to centrally store your company data in a safe, reliable, quickly accessible common resource. Look for devices that contain multiple disks and support Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID). RAID allows to you to radically increase the reliability of your storage and in many cases increase the speed at which information is written and read from and to the device, improving the overall performance. It is also very important for the device to support individual user authentication to keep data private. And if your network supports gigabit Ethernet, make sure that your appliance does as well, in orderto maximize performance. NetgearReadyNAS, EMC AX150, Iomega StorCenter, and HP StorageWorks Media Vault Pro are good examples of these type of devices.

Automated backup

NAS devices also represent excellent destinations for your automated backup. If this is the primary reason you are interested in a NAS device, make sure it comes with good backup software and backup client licenses.

Desktop independent print sharing

Your printer has just become a lot smarter. Many printers today can be connected to your network -- some of them even wirelessly -- and become accessible from any networked computer. If considering a networkable multifunction device, make sure that all its functions (printing, scanning, faxing) are supported across the network. Some only allow for the printing functionality to be shared and require the device to be connected locally via USB in order to provide scanning and faxing. 

Anti-virus, spam filtering, firewalling, etc.

Unified Threat Management (UTM) appliances effectively replace servers in protecting your network and computers connected to it from intrusion, malware, and spam. UTM appliances often come with software to be installed on your networked computers and provide hands-off protection. The leader in the market is SonicWALL, although there are some other interesting vendors with particularly appealing small business solutions such as TrustEli, ZyXEL, and SOHOware's BroadScan.

Virtual private networking (VPN)

VPN is a technology that allows users outside the physical premises of a network to securely connect to it via the Internet and have access to all shared resources and network privileges. VPN can also be used to connect two or more physically distinct network into one. This allows businesses with mobile workforce or telecommuters to provide the full benefits f a common digital work environment. VPN functionality is often provided as an extra feature of UTM appliances or Internet routers. Examples are the Netgear FVS318orthe Linksys RV042 or HotBrick 401 VPN. Remember to verify how many concurrent VPN connection your device will allow and how many VPN client licenses are included in the price.

Voice over IP (VoIP) services

VoIP allows for incredible flexibility and often cost saving. You can create a sophisticated phone system within your office with a VoIP appliance and network phones, or software on your computer to emulate a phone (softphone). The system will allow your call to reach you seamlessly when travelling anywhere in the world, have your voicemail forwarded to you as e-mail attachments, and much, much more.  To learn about VoIP for small businesses you can read this column I wrote for IncTechnology. Good examples of appliance-based VoIP systems are: Fonality PBxtra, Microsoft ResponsePoint, and Digium Asterisk Appliance.

While it is true that modern, powerful servers can do a lot more, such as hosting e-mail services,  applications sharing, database hosting, it is important to realize that the core functions mentioned above represent the bulk of what small business have been wanting to use local networks for. The concept of dedicated appliance is making incredible progress and every day new devices come to market at lower prices to fulfill more and more specialized needs: job attendance tracking, point of sales support, network search and more.

Now you know that your network can become a true secure collaborative environment without piercing a hole through you finances or requiring a full time IT support person. It's time to share.

Andrea Peiro is a recognized authority, author, analyst and speaker on high-tech marketing and use of information technology in small and mid-sized businesses. He has been frequently interviewed and featured in such media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Inc. You can reach him at