With computers taking over, setting up a new office is no longer about just desk and chairs. Information Technology forms the back bone of a modern day office and hence should top on your planning list
I get a lot of mails from readers asking how to go about setting up an Internet café or small office. Here’s how you go about it. In this article, I will look at two possible scenarios; a small ten-computer café and a medium 25-person office.
Things Before IT
Survey your office area properly before you embark upon setting up the network. Mark out the sitting arrangement before you lay the network nodes.
Software such as SmartDraw (www.smartdraw.com) helps in planning the seating arrangements; the trial version is free for download. Microsoft’s Visio is another tool that comes handy in this situation. If you don’t have access to these tools, humble Excel can be put to good use too (use the border tool to mark out).
Once you have decided on the seating arrangement, make sure to carve out a portion for the back office. This will be where all your network points will terminate to a switch and / or router, your Internet connection will terminate, peripherals such as printers and fax machines will be kept, and so on.
These preliminary steps done, go ahead and get the networking done. Use good quality Category 6 cables for networking. There are many vendors who provide structured cabling solutions—Tyco, Systimax, D-Link, ADC Krone, Panduit and more. Opt for the solution that best fits your budget. The number of people shouldn’t determine the type of network—you should be looking at the type of data you’ll be using, and how much traffic the network will have to deal with. For a 25-person office, I suggest going Gigabit; it future-proofs your investment too!
Putting IT Up
When putting up your IT infrastructure, you have to think beyond just hardware and software. Let me take your though the planning process wherein we will look at each aspect of establishing a rock solid IT infrastructure.
Having a good, reliable power source is of utmost importance. Getting stable electricity is a problem in many parts of our country, so before you setup up your office, do a preliminary check on the availability and quality of power supply. Always invest in a UPS or an alternative power source—even if your area never sees a power cut, better safe than sorry.
There are various types of UPSes available—Standby, Line Interactive, Standby online hybrid, Standby Ferro, Double conversion Online and Delta Conversion Online. See the table overleaf for a detailed comparison. Line interactive UPSes will work well for a small 10-25 member team, with power requirement not exceeding 5 kVA.
Vendors such as APC, Emerson and Numeric are few players who offer products and services in the UPS segment. Choose the appropriate product depending on your power requirements, generally given as VA or KVA.
A couple of years back, networking simply referred to stretching lengths of cable across the office floor. However, with the advent of wireless technologies, going wired or wireless is the first hurdle and dilemma most people will encounter.
The decision to go wired or wireless will largely depend upon the type of computers you have or plan to introduce. If most of the PCs in your office are going to be desktops then I suggest you go for wired networking. However, if most people are to use laptops, then wireless is definitely the answer—primarily for the convenience it offers.
When going wired, think long term—I would recommend going the Gigabit Ethernet way. It will significantly improve network speed and also offer higher bandwidth, thus taking care of congestion. When putting up the network, choose good quality products—don’t try to cut costs and settle for anything because it’s cheaper than the rest.
Switches are getting cheaper, and hence I encourage buying them over hubs. Vendors such as 3Com, D-Link, Netgear, and HP have good LAN Switches and an unmanaged 16 port Gigabit Ethernet switch won’t cost more than Rs 16,000. Pair these Gigabit switches with proper Category 6 (CAT 6) cables to extract maximum benefits. CAT5E can also be used with Gigabit switches, but I still recommend opting for CAT 6 cables.
Deploying a wireless network requires less time than wired network and there are few considerations you need to keep in mind.
To maximise the signal coverage area, wireless devices have to be installed high up. When planning seating, locate a spot such that the wireless device falls in the centre and the client devices (laptops or cell phones) fall within the signal coverage radius. Avoid installing the wireless device near wooden cabinets, metal objects or at desk level as this will lead to attenuation of signal and hence lesser coverage. Mounting the devices high results in signal reflecting off the ceiling thus improving signal coverage.
Most devices come with omni-directional antennas and broadcast signal around the router; good when you put the router in the centre of the room but not ideal when the device is mounted on a wall. You can buy a high-gain directional antenna which will direct maximum signal in the direction you want. There might be situations where some part of your office might not get enough signal, use repeaters to improve the strength. Network security is a concern with wireless networks—ensure your devices use the highest possible security measure possible. WPA2 offers good protection and is available with almost all new Wi-Fi devices.
Vendors such as Linksys, D-Link and ASUS have some real good products. Linksys has two ranges of products—one aimed at home users and other at professional; opt for the professional (WRT) series—the WRT-54G is quite a poplar product. D-Link has come out with some real good products and they were awarded in our recently concluded test. The D-link DIR-655 has loads of features, is compatible with 802.11N devices and offers blistering performance.
When it comes to buying a PC for your office, you can either go branded or get them assembled from your local assembler. Branded PC players do offer some benefits—tighter quality control, extensive after sales support, and if you bargain hard, good corporate discounts. Sadly, the configuration always falls short of performance. On the other hand, assembling your PC gives you the flexibility of building it to your specifications and requirements. Also, for the same price you can always build better performing machine than branded PCs. If you have a trusted knowledgeable assembler then I would definitely say go assembled else you may consider buying branded PCs.
What is an ideal Office PC configuration? There is no one configuration which can be termed as the ideal office PC configuration. The configuration will largely depend on the kind of work which will be done on it. Couple of years ago building a PC was quite simple; plonk a high end processor and add loads of memory to build a high performance machine. However, today this doesn’t completely hold true. Most new applications incorporate visual effects and have intuitive interfaces—for example, Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007 and so on. Running such visually heavy application requires incredible amount of computation power which the processor can’t handle. In other words, a graphics solution is important and can’t be neglected.
A reasonably powerful, multi-purpose PC can be assembled within Rs 30,000. But going by general convention, you might be tempted to put in the best possible processor, around 2 GB of memory, an onboard graphics solution, large hard drive, CRT monitor and the regular stuff. Such a system would be inherently fast but will fail to deliver the goods when it encounters graphically taxing tasks. Here, I would suggest you go for reasonably good processor, buy any entry level graphics card from NVIDIA or ATI, put 2 GB of memory and from the money you saved by not buying the best processor buy an LCD monitor. Such a system would also deliver near good performance and importantly will be responsive under graphically taxing tasks.
Having a graphics card also has additional benefits. New generation graphic chips from NVIDIA and ATI are completely programmable and hence they can be made to do certain task that only CPUs could do. NVIDIA’s CUDA and ATI’s Brooke are the technologies are just emerging and hold true potential in days to come. For example, NVIDIA’s CUDA is already available and cuts down computing-intensive tasks such as transcoding media from hours to just minutes. Even vendors such as Adobe have released applications which take advantage of this technology to cut down processing time and improve productivity.
Buy LCD displays—they are sleek and save a lot of desk space. They also require less power, and hence reduce electricity bills. Viewsonic, Samsung, LG, AOC and Dell have excellent products on offer.
I am listing three combination of critical components which determine their performance.
Configuration 1: AMD Athlon64 X2 5000 AM2, Any AMD 780G or NVIDIA 8200 chipset motherboard from ASUS, Gigabyte or MSI, 512 MB DDR II RAM from Transcend or Kingston 160 GBhard drive space and 17” LCD display from Viewsonic, LG, Dell etc. This configuration along with common components should cost you more than Rs 20,500.
Configuration 2: Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 processor, NVIDIA 8200 or Intel P35 Chipset motherboard from ASUS, Gigabyte or MSI, 2 GB of DDR II RAM from Transcend or Kingston, 250 GB SATA hard drive from WD or Seagate, 17” LCD display from Viewsonic, LG, Dell etc and importantly NVIDIA 8500GT 512MB display card. This configuration along with common components shouldn’t cost more than Rs 30,000.
Configuration 3: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. NVIDIA 8200 or Intel P35 chipset motherboard from ASUS, Gigabyte or MSI, 2 GB of DDR II RAM from Trancend or Kingston, 500 GB hard drive from WD or Seagate, 19” LCD display from Viewsonic, LG, Dell etc and NVIDIA Quadro FX570 card. This configuration along with common components won’t cost above Rs 40,000.
Common components include: 16X DVD optical drive from LG or Sony, VIP cabinet and 400W power supply, keyboard and mouse from Logitech.
Once computers are put on a network, sharing of files and resources ensues. How often and heavily each person relies on such shared resources determines whether there is a real need for a specialised, dedicated server. A server is a centralised computer on the network which accepts requests from clients (PCs) and serves the required data to those clients. Servers can be put to many uses—file sharing, database hosting, mail server, or as a web server. The role it plays generally determines the hardware requirements.
Most small offices often deploy a general PC as a server for storing and sharing files. While it might be okay to do so, I will recommend going in for branded entry level server. Reliability is the word that you should associate with servers. While it is possible to assemble a server using server components, I suggest you opt for branded entry-level servers. Each component right from motherboard to the chassis has to be designed with reliability in mind, which doesn’t happen when assembling a server. It’s better to look out for branded servers where manufacturers rigorously test every factor that affects reliability. Also, entry level servers for small 25 member team are cheaper than you’d expect.
Dell, HP and IBM are some of the prominent vendors in the server space. They offer all kinds of servers—right from entry-level towers to high-end blade servers. Dell has the PowerEdge series, while with HP you can opt for the ProLiant ML series of servers. In IBM, you can choose the SystemX series of servers. Most servers from the above mentioned vendors are available for under Rs 50,000 with the basic configuration; you may add components later as per your needs.
Once the hardware’s taken care of, a server will also require an equally competent server operating system. While Linux has proved its mettle in the server space, you will need an on-site system administrator to oversee matters. Microsoft does offer the Windows Server operating system, but for a small team of 10-25 members, Linux is a better alternative. You will need the help of a Linux expert when setting up initially, but once the system is set up properly, it will rarely go down.
Any organisation, no matter how big, should have an active data backup policy. Digital data is volatile and all it takes is one hard drive crash to completely wipe out your important information. You can have both online as well as offline data backup policies to ensure data redundancy. Most small offices use CDs / DVDs to take backup of data—I wouldn’t advise it as the only solution, mainly because it’s not reliable and not very pocket-friendly.
If you buy a server, implementing an online backup solution is simple and effective. There are many free utilities available on the internet which allows scheduled backup of you data on to the server. These nifty utilities allow complete backup, incremental backup and also restoring of data. SyncBack (www.2brightsparks .com) is one such backup client available free of cost (one version prior to the latest). The advantage of having an online backup is that if any client machine crashes, that person can always use some other machine and continue working on already available data.
Apart from having an online backup, you can also have an offline backup plan. There are two ways of doing this—have an external hard drive which you connect to the system only when taking backup. Once the backup is done, disconnect the hard drive—this extends its lifetime. External hard drives are getting cheaper and are now even available with Ethernet ports which improve the data transfer speeds over USB. Maxtor, Western Digital, Seagate and Freecom are some of the vendors offering excellent external hard drive products.
Second option for offline data backup is to use CDs / DVDs. If you plan to take data backup on CDs / DVDs then you may want to have a look at an application called LANwriter (www.lanwriter.com). LANwriter is a centralised data publishing application which can be installed on the server and only authorised users can burn discs. This allows installing only one writer in the office and keeping track of the data that is burned on CDs / DVDs.
Internet, Email And Security
Even small companies today need a fast Internet connection. As a team of 10-25 members, you can approach vendors such as VSNL (Tata), Bharati, BSNL and MTNL. These vendors have extensive network throughout our country and will get you reliable Internet connections. If your usage is limited to e-mail and Internet browsing, then even a monthly pay-as-you-use scheme will do—in any case, don’t settle for anything less than 512 Kbps . Hosting a proxy server is the best way to share your Internet connection. Make sure to block certain files (MP3s, EXEs and so on) if you have a pay-as-you-use scheme. Even an old PC with a Pentium 4 processor, 512 MB of RAM and new hard drive would prove good enough for hosting a proxy server.
For an e-mail solution, you can easily host your own email server, but I recommend Google Apps instead. All you have to do is register your domain and then follow the steps given by Google to activate your Google Apps account. The free standard version gives you 100 e-mail accounts each with 6 GB of space (and counting)—more than enough for any venture.
Guarding your network against viruses is critical, even if you maintain a regular backup of data. Viruses can infect applications, destroy data and spread to every machine of the network, lowering productivity and efficiency of your team. Internet, USB pen drives are some of the prominent entry points whereby machine gets infected. Install anti-virus software on every client machine on your network, including the server machine. Don’t blindly install free antivirus tools like Avast or AVG—they’re only free for personal use, so using them in a business environment will invite the kind of trouble you don’t ever want. Kaspersky, Symantec and McAfee have products aimed at small to medium businesses, and Avast’s professional version is also cost-effective and a good performer. If you have a server in place you may also go for centralised solutions where the server will run periodic scans on client systems. Apart from antivirus software, spyware busters such as Spybot and Ad-Aware can also be deployed to keep malicious spyware at bay.
All offices need peripherals such as printers, scanners, faxes etc. While you may consider buying them separately, I suggest multi-functional devices (MFD) to replace them all. MFDs may be a bit expensive to buy, but work out cheaper in the long run. HP, Canon, Epson and Brother have an extensive lineup of products in this category. Before you buy any product, ensure easy availability of cartridges and services.
If you print a lot, them you might consider adding a heavy-duty printer along with an MFD. When you buy a printer, first calculate the average number of pages you print in a month. Although the market offers cheap laser printers, avoid the tendency to put one on each desk—it’s better to opt for a heavy-duty mono laser printer with useful features such as double-sided printing, which saves paper. Some new printers also offer advanced features such as keying in a code to retrieve printout—each team member will be given a specific code which he has to key in for the printer to print otherwise the printer won’t print his job; this dramatically reduces paper and toner wastage. HP’s LaserJet P4515 is one such model. In case you want colour printouts, HP’s Officejet Pro series of printers are definitely recommended.
I hope this guide helps you in setting up a robust IT infrastructure. If you have any specific queries you can e-mail them to me (or anyone from the team) and we’ll make it a point to help you out.