How To Hire A Network AdministratorPosted on Friday, December 20th, 2013 by Joseph C.Panettieri
It’s three in the morning, and you have a proposal due in less than 24 hours.
Then things get interesting: your office computers crash.
Whom do you call?
A primer on hiring companies to set up, maintain and, yes, fix your company’s computer network.
If you worked for or owned a large company, a coworker—let’s call him Bernie, the person in charge of the network—would be your savior. Oh, sure, he’d occasionally mutter under his breath about your lack of technical knowledge, but he’d trudge into your office, race his fingers across your keyboard and fix a PC problem in minutes. He’d also be the person to add software applications (email, database gizmos) to your network. You’d never think about Bernie until some e-glitch affected your job. But again, you’d call him, and the problem would be fixed.
Reality is a little more complicated. Most businesses can’t afford to hire a Bernie. Instead, many entrepreneurs fix their own problems, hope that nothing goes wrong with their network or use antiquated technology because they don’t know any better.
What makes up a network anyway, and do you even need one? To answer that question, you should understand what type of hardware, software and technology services your business requires. Here’s a rundown of key requirements and popular options:
PCs. Nowadays, nearly all desktop PCs and notebook computers come with mammoth hard drives (at least 40 gigabytes of storage), loads of memory (at least 128 megabytes of RAM), large monitors (at least 17 inches of viewable screen) and an Ethernet card that connects the system to a local area network or the Internet. CD-ROM or DVD drives are nice options for multimedia applications and system backup.
Software. Most businesses use Microsoft Office to manage tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. However, Office can cost more than $400 per user. Niche alternatives include Sun’s StarOffice, which costs $75.95 per user. If you need small-business financial applications, a good starting point is Intuit’s Web site (www.intuit.com/products_services/small_business).
Servers. Do you have multiple users who need access to the same info? A server is a highly reliable centralized PC for file sharing, printer sharing and running advanced business applications such as an Oracle database or a sales-management package. An entry-level server can cost $1,500 to $5,000. However, many small businesses don’t need full-blown servers, since desktop operating systems such as Windows and Apple’s Mac OS allow computers to share files and printers without a central server.
Network infrastructure. Sharing files, applications and Internet connections between PCs requires specialized hardware, known as an Ethernet switch. Low-end Ethernet switches typically cost less than $100 per user. You’ll also need a low-end router, which serves as a firewall (aka, a security blanket) between your private network and the Internet. Some entry-level switches, from companies such as 3Com, Cisco Systems and Linksys, now come with built-in routing technology. (Cisco’s Web site: www.cisco.com/go/network101.)
Wired or wireless? Some small businesses no longer use cumbersome wiring to link their systems into a network. Instead, they use wireless Ethernet cards and wireless switches, which typically cost $200 or more per user. This allows users to maintain a network connection as they roam around the office with a laptop or handheld computer. Ask your technology partner about the inherent security risks associated with going wireless.
Security. Be sure that your network includes antivirus software, backup software and firewall security. If you don’t have the skill to back up your files (at least once a week), your technology partner can recommend an Internet service provider that can automate the task for you.
Technology services. Your technology partner can recommend a high-speed Internet service provider, a Web site developer, Web hosts, storage service providers and other online services that may benefit your business.
While the word “network” evokes mages of huge computer servers humming away in large rooms, the truth is that hooking up two or more PCs—enabling them to work together—creates a network. With 85 percent of small businesses now computerized (up from 71 percent in 1999, according to the Network of City Business Journals), that’s a lot of networks. Moreover, applications such as email and Web access make those networks critical to your business.
The problem for many small- business owners is where to start. How do you find a company to help you with all things related to your network—including computer glitches when you’re on deadline? And how do you figure out what you need?
Like many small-business owners, Christopher Santini is a demanding entrepreneur—especially when it comes to his company’s technology infrastructure. “We demand ongoing, constant support from our technology consultant,” says Santini, managing director of TimeCapital Securities Corp., a full-service brokerage firm in Smithtown, N.Y., roughly 70 miles east of Manhattan.
When Santini launched his business in 1997—after a stint with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, where he was surrounded by advanced workstations, e-commerce systems and other technologies—he counted on using technology and personalized service as a leg up against the competition. Today, Santini’s small-business network, which his company regularly upgrades, includes network hardware from Cisco Systems, a handful of Windows XP workstations and a financial-services feed.
“The consultant who put this network together is best described as a service provider,” says Santini with a grin—he wants to keep the competition guessing about the designer’s identity. “I certainly consider the consultant to be a strategic partner.” And, yes, he’s the guy who gets Santini up and running again when the system crashes.
Like Santini, thousands of small-business owners often outsource their service, support and troubleshooting needs to PC resellers, systems integrators, application developers, Internet service providers (ISPs) and other types of consulting firms. As a whole, these would-be partners are typically known as solutions providers. “Small companies want to manage their businesses, not their networks,” says Robert Winch, director of product management at 3Com Corp. “That’s where resellers and solutions providers enter the picture.”
And they enter in droves. There are more than 60,000 solutions providers across the country today, according to 3Com. However, the Santa Clara, Calif.–based networking company works with fewer than 4,000 of them because of quality requirements, not to mention the industry churn that has been hastened by the dot-com meltdown.
Meanwhile, many entrepreneurs are so busy managing their businesses that they lack the time or expertise to seek out reliable solutions providers. Even if such relationships do materialize, entrepreneurs often forget to protect their company’s interests through service-level agreements (see SLAs, page 36).
Financial concerns can cloud the picture even further. “Many times, small businesses have Champagne taste and a beer budget,” says Scott Okun, co-owner of CTI Network Solutions LLC, a network solutions provider in Fairfield, N.J. “They need a reseller who can help them design a solution using the most cost-effective hardware and technology without compromising functionality.”
Striking that delicate balance isn’t easy. In their haste to get businesses up and running, many entrepreneurs boot up rudimentary PC networks before they evaluate their current and future infrastructure needs. This common error often forces businesses to overhaul their networks each time a new application is added to the system.
To avoid such problems from the outset, it’s wise to visit Microsoft’s Web site for small-business customers (www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness). Despite the inherent self-interest, the site is useful even for companies that don’t intend to license Microsoft’s products, with contact information for solutions providers throughout the United States. In addition to their Microsoft expertise, many of those solutions providers specialize in technologies from other prominent companies, such as 3Com, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Oracle.
Sweat the DetailsTo protect both parties, it’s often wise for a small business and a solutions provider to sign a service-level agreement (SLA). A typical SLA outlines the scope of a technology project, deliverables, anticipated results and other variables that can make or break a customer relationship. Here’s a look at some of the ground SLAs should cover, according to Coollawyer Inc., a digital legal forms company. (Remember: You should consult with a legal professional before entering into any SLA, as state laws vary. Also, make sure the contract has a clause enabling you to get out of the relationship easily if you’re unhappy.)
After compiling a short list of local providers, business owners should solicit a few customer references. It’s also wise to check the company’s history with the local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau, says Dan Blumenthal, vice president of IT Consulting for Miller Systems, a solutions provider in Boston, Mass.
“There are two good ways to find a solutions provider,” adds Okun of CTI Network Solutions. “If you’re interested in a specific manufacturer’s product, ask the manufacturer who their best partner in your area is. Manufacturers have a vested interest in making sure you’re happy, so they’ll only recommend the best. Second, interview the solutions provider the way you would interview potential employees. Ask them what type of projects they’ve managed. Ask to speak to some clients, and above all, make sure that the person sitting in front of you is someone you can work with. You may be spending a lot of time together.”
Once a business is comfortable with a solutions provider’s credentials, the two organizations can discuss a technology road map. This should identify the scope of the business’s ambitions for the next 18 to 24 months and include specific projects and milestones, such as a successful network installation, Web site launch or application deployment.
“Even for a small business, it’s important to consider options that go beyond basic email and word-processing packages,” says Blumenthal. “Additional business software may be a good investment in continued growth of the company. Bookkeeping, time tracking, inventory management and other types of applications might be ideal options now or down the road.”
At press time, Santini’s company was enjoying a brief market rally, and he was contemplating its technology needs. “It’s hard to say what we’ll ask for next because technology changes so rapidly,” he says. “But, if possible, it would be nice to have everything in the office work wirelessly.” Of course, he’ll have to consider the security ramifications of going wireless.
Sounds like another job for Santini’s very own Bernie.