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Ask Cisco: What networking equipment should I buy for an easy-to-maintain, reliable network?

As a small business owner, there’s no end to the questions you need to address—and you may not have the answers for all of them. Where technology is concerned, we can help. Ask Cisco is a new series in which we answer a question from small business owners like yourself about networking-related issues that have you stumped.

As always, we’d love to hear from you about the new series. You can post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Q: It’s clear to me that I need a solid network and IT infrastructure, but maintaining this technology isn’t my core line of business. I see a very wide array of apparently similar products on the market with equally wide price ranges, which makes IT purchasing confusing. I just want my network to work without interruption and not require an army of consultants to maintain. How can I figure out what hardware I need to meet this goal?

A: In the age of the “prosumer”, determining exactly what you’re going to get for your money can be a challenge, even for technically inclined people. As an example, when you can buy a 24-port Gigabit Ethernet switch at Best Buy for $99, it may seem strange that other vendors offer what appears to be the same thing for significantly more money. After all, they do the same thing, right?

On the face of it, yes, both products will work to connect computers and other resources like printers on an Ethernet network, but the cheaper model is built with that low price in mind. This means the components are cheaper, the power supplies are less robust, and the internal switching circuits are far less capable of handling a busy network. The software that runs on these switches usually lack features that a very small office or home network might not require, again reducing the price. Beyond the home or small office, however, those features can make a huge difference. These factors, coupled with the construction quality, means that these switches may work for a time, but their life expectancy is generally low.

The switches that cost more provide a lot more functionality. For example, the Cisco 300 Series Managed Switches provide features to improve the speed, security, and reliability of your network well beyond a “prosumer” product. And the construction of these devices is better than you will find on bargain-basement alternatives.

Security and reliability

An insecure network is clearly problematic, as is a network that regularly breaks down—both of which can significantly increase a device’s total cost of ownership. Just one network outage or security breach will wipe out any cost savings you gained by purchasing a cheaper device.

By purchasing core networking equipment that supports features like Access Control Lists (ACLs), you increase the security and reliability of your network. Other features like Layer 3 switching and Quality of Service (QoS) improve network performance. For example, QoS prioritizes different types of traffic to ensure that applications like voice over IP (VoIP) and video conferencing perform as they should without stuttering and dropouts. And IPv6 support means that these switches will be able to seamlessly transition to the next-generation IP addressing scheme, again extending the switch’s useful life.

Another factor to consider is power consumption and efficiency. Core networking devices are always on. Advanced power-saving features such as the capability to go into a low-power sleep mode when network traffic is light and to turn off unused ports reduces the amount of electricity consumed, thereby reducing the cost required to keep that switch running 24/7.

Beyond the hardware itself, you need to consider the support that accompanies the device. For example, the Cisco 300 Series switches offer one year of technical support, a limited lifetime warranty, and next-business-day advance replacement. This means that should the switch encounter a problem, you’ll be shipped a replacement product overnight. This can drastically minimize network downtime and, potentially, lost revenue.

Calculating the total cost of ownership for core networking equipment such as switches, routers, and wireless devices varies from business to business. But the need for a stable and reliable network does not. When it comes to the backbone of your network—and the backbone of your business—purchasing business-grade hardware that is robust and backed by comprehensive support can save you time and money.

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