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Small office equipment suggestions.

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We recently had our inefficient and barely functional network gear blow up in a thunderstorm and now my boss is asking me for a proposal to replace and upgrade the set-up. At the moment we have a Netgear CG814CCR v2 combination router and cable modem from Comcast. Our office is prewired for 15 users though we normally only use about 8 or 9 but would like to either have the capacity or easy expandability for/to all 15 users (or close to). We also have two systems running wirelessly and misc. wireless laptops in the office.

I envision a simple router to switch to either a wireless router running as an access point or an actual access point set-up, but I am open to suggestions. I also don't know what brands to be looking at for an effective solution that will work seamlessly (Should I go all netgear? If switch to an SMC cable modem in the future, is that going to cause a problem?).

In the past we have had multiple routers that, though configured correctly for internet sharing, would not allow file sharing. We have computers running everything from W2K to Vista. Also, our previous wireless router would dump users regularly even though there were never more than the max number of connections running. Lastly, we are in a two story reclaimed warehouse. In the past the wireless router was strong enough to reach from the upstairs to the downstairs, but was a bit touchy. The new one should be at least as good.

I am looking for configuration/equipment (specific) suggestions from someone with more on the ground experience with the gear than myself. Price is going to be a big consideration as well as we are a small company and things are tight.

- JR
I think you're on the right track. Router ---> Switch ---> Wireless AP.

As for a Router, depends on your needs. The Linksys RV0 series seems to be popular with a lot of people as a good, small business grade router. I personally have always been a fan of Watchguard and Sonicwall. For those, look for an X10e or TZ-180 or 190, respectively. But I've used a Linksys RV016 and it seemed pretty solid.These are $300-$600 units though, as opposed to $50-$100 home-user grade routers. I guess is depends on how tight the budget is. If you're looking for something a little cheaper, the D-Link DIR-655 seems to be a popular choice these days amongst home units. I personally use one as a wireless AP at home and have no complaints.

As for a switch, my recommendations usually start and stop with HP's Procurve line. They're a solid, business grade unit with a life-time warranty. Lots of options there depending on how many ports you want, whether you want GigE, PoE, etc. A fairly straight forward procurve is probably going to run you about $300, whereas you can get a linksys or dlink switch for $65-$200. Not to say they're not good switches, I just have had the best experiences with HPs. You could still get a solid linksys or dlink for sub $200.

Lots of options depending on budget. Personally, even in smaller offices where bidgets are tight I always try to recommend leaning towards more business grade stuff and spending a couple hundred more bucks.. But that's just me.

I would assume that the Netgear router / modem combo that we have is sufficient on the router end.

If we add on the HP switch that you recommend, do you have any suggestions for wireless access points? Also, do you forsee any compatibility issues with a Netgear router, an HP switch and a possible third manufacturer for the access point? We have had cable modem/routers from Comcast go out before and they only offer Netgear or SMC units to replace them (usually used units, but I have been told that I can request a NEW SMC next time), and just about every time they switch the model or brand, we have had compatibility issues.

- JR
You can have pretty much any mish-mash of brands you like. They all run off the same networking standards so it doesn't much matter. Sometimes ISP's track things like MAC addresses, causing new units to [temporarily] not work, but otherwise it shouldn't make a difference for most ISPs. I dont have any experience with Comcast myself, though.

As far as an AP goes, no particular model comes to mind, though I've had the best success with DLink's line of DWL access points (eg. DWL-3200AP). They range from $75 to $400+ depending on what you need. For a basic AP, you dont need much. I currently use a DIR-655 wireless router as an AP at home and it works great. Also, some of D-Link's AP's support things like WDS (wireless distribution system) so if you have plans to expand the network or add AP's, sometimes this can be of value. If cost is an issue, you can just buy a regular wireless router and turn it into an access point.
Lastly, we are in a two story reclaimed warehouse. In the past the wireless router was strong enough to reach from the upstairs to the downstairs, but was a bit touchy. The new one should be at least as good.
Scotty is steering you in the right direction. Given that your wireless connectivity has been iffy, you should consider a multiple AP setup. You can convert any wireless router to an AP. If you do want to go the AP route, you will probably pay more since APs are generally aimed at the "enterprise" crowd, who are assumed to have bigger budgets.

Unless you have really heavy bandwidth needs, you would probably be better off using a couple of 802.11g APs than trying to use draft 11n routers converted to APs. Draft 11n won't provide better range. And they run hotter, which seems to be leading to reliability issues for some products.
Hi everyone,

I would like to ask for some suggestions as well. We had recently had an auction on some office equipment. I was hoping to get myself a router so we can surf the net without sharing PCs. I have a desktop and a laptop at home. I was advised LynkSys G is enough (for the two computers) and that I would just have to put password in it. Is is true?

Thanks in advanced.
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I assume you mean a Linksys with Wireless G? That'd be fine, but be sure to use a secure method of encryption for the passphrase, and make it somewhat complicated. The more secure the better :)

Whatever you do, don't use WEP :D
+1 for Scotty's & thiggins' responses.

I know lots of small business owners are ... idiots (and I have been guilty of this in the past myself, so I can use a strong word like "idiots"), but get some decent gear and get at least informal agreements with technicians in the area to support you on-premises if something breaks. You're, what, 8-9 people sitting on this LAN? How much does one hour of downtime cost you, based on the salaries of those 8-9 people alone?

For small network firewalls I really like pfSense on a small PC. See if there is someone competent in the area (i.e. someone who has set up at least 10 units) to install it for you, and offer post-sales support. pfSense is rock solid, and will not crash under load. Price -- well, 500 USD for a small PC and at least 500 USD for the man-hours.

Additionally, the Cisco ASA 5505 is actually pretty cheap in the small software editions -- I think ~600 USD or so. The ASA 5505 is rock solid, and the Cisco interface is the industry standard -- you can find lots of consultants who can fix a Cisco based network for you. If you need roadwarrior VPN (laptop on the go connecting back to the office LAN), then Cisco's older IPSEC VPN client sucks for modern 64-bit OS's. Their new SSL client is far better -- and requires the larger software editions of the 5505 and thereby becomes much more expensive. TheGreenBow IPSEC VPN client is a possible workaround, but it too costs some money.

I too like the smaller unmanaged HP Procurve switches. They just work, and don't generate much heat.

While on the topic of switches: 100MBit is really quite enough for most networks of this size. 1 GBit costs almost the same as 100 Mbit, so one could say go for 1 GBit right away, it's for free. Just keep in mind that 1 GBit requires better cabling to work reliably (but most cabling nowadays is already at least Cat5E, so Gbit should be fine).

There is no problem in connecting switches and NICs from different vendors. The problems you have seen in the past were not really compatibility problems, they were more 'crappy equipment' problems. This should not happen with good gear.

+1 for the architecture outlined by the others above:

  • firewall connected to the ISP equipment (just have the ISP give you a ethernet port with a public IP address)
  • cabled to a switch in the main wiring closet
  • cabled users and to access point(s) in the office areas (via the permanent cabling that connects back to the wiring closet & switch)
  • Set up the APs so they have more or less unobstructed line of sight to your clients (as best possible)
  • don't be afraid to use 2 APs, if that is what you need to cover the offices well.
  • if you need high security (many people don't): Connect the APs directly to a port on the firewall, and set up a special wireless LAN segment on the firewall, possibly using software VPN from the client PCs to the main internal network.

If you need a couple of extra cabled network ports in a office location, then don't be afraid to just hang a cheap 5-port/8-port switch off the network drop (i.e. main switch in wiring closet --> switch in office --> a couple of users). Works fine, and is easy enough to troubleshoot by just connecting a known good PC to the various ports.

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