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Is your network killing collaboration?

Old networking infrastructure is one of the biggest barriers to implementing a unified communications and collaboration strategy. Here's how SMB networks can handle the increased load, without requiring a significant hardware upgrade.

One of the hottest things to hit business IT in recent years has been unified communications and collaboration. UCC includes many useful technologies and tools, all falling under the umbrella of “make it easier for people to communicate and work together.” That includes Slack, Skype for Business, online training courses, cloud-based phone systems, YouTube videos, and web conferencing, just as a start.

However, one factor might kill UCC in small and midsize businesses (SMBs): aging computer networks. UCC generates a lot of network traffic. Can smaller, and older, business networks handle the increased load?

The stakes

Before answering that question, let's take a look at what's at stake. 

Adopting UCC isn't just about keeping up with the cool kids. According to an IDC research paper sponsored by AT&T, implementing these technologies and tools provides many benefits to businesses of all sizes, including smaller companies. These include cost savings, increased productivity, and faster decision-making.

Thanks to these benefits, most SMBs have either implemented a UCC strategy or plan to: According to IDC, 32 percent of SMBs currently use UCC, and 35 percent of SMBs expect to do so within the next two years.

What are these SMBs doing with UCC? Plenty. The AT&T paper lists the most common uses as email and online conferences, but UCC also powers document sharing, online chat, and other forms of collaboration.

While UCC can be a valuable asset, it's often an aging computer network that prevents an SMB from reaping the benefits.

The need for mobile collaboration continues to grow. Here's how SMBs can support it.

Heavy loads

An SMB's computer network needs to handle much more data than it did even a few years ago, points out Sid Fein, chief technology officer at SaaS-based document management platform CertFocus. Traffic isn't growing just because of viral cat videos and email messages with large file attachments. Network data traffic is heavily affected by UCC business applications. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones consume lots of bandwidth, as do web conferencing apps, online training videos, and streaming services such as Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.

Cloud computing might appear to be a mitigating factor. But UCC data still needs to make its way into your company and back out again. During that journey, the data pushes its way through your Internet service provider’s network and onto your own. That's where network bottlenecks can crush an SMB’s UCC dreams.

"Collaboration is so dependent on the user experience," says Bob McKenna, global SMB marketing manager at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "If the user experience is not good, collaboration tools will not be used, and there goes your investment."

What about upgrading your computer network? Upgrading your servers and networking bandwidth eliminates bottlenecks, but it isn’t always a reasonable option. Many SMBs lack the funds to do so, and as a result, they miss out on all the UCC goodness.

So how can you implement a sound UCC strategy without upgrading your computer network? Here are some options.

What’s hogging the bandwidth?

If you experience network outages and performance degradation, you need to address the bottlenecks. The key is taking time to figure out the current load so you can prioritize changes based on what gives the most business value. "The estimate does not need to be fine-grained," Fein says. 

Part of the process is figuring out your network's high- and low-usage times. "Use your equipment's tracking functionality to capture these windows," says Fein, "and you can plan accordingly."

One option is to enable only relevant UCC services. Consider: Do you really need these high-bandwidth activities at the same time? Likely, you do not.

For example, one of Fein's previous employers ran two hours of webinars every week at the same time. “During each period, they needed five high-performance connections,” he says. “You didn't want to be doing things like pulling down your data warehouse during the webinars. But that's exactly what happened one time. Needless to say, the VP of sales was not happy."

The end result was a new rule: Network-intensive processes would not be used during webinars. "They practically shut down the rest of the office to make it work," says Fein, "but it worked perfectly every time."

While this approach may sound similar to your town's sprinkler regulations—even street numbers water on one day, odd numbers on another—it's one of the easiest ways to address network bottlenecks. Plus, it's completely free.

Put your ISP to the test

Are you getting the bandwidth you're paying for? That’s something to take up with your ISP.

Fein suggests using a free external test site, such as Speedtest or Bandwidth Place, to get your answer. Run those bandwidth tests during the high and low network usage times you collected to ensure that connectivity peaks and valleys aren't caused by something outside of your control.

"Sometimes your Tuesday peak usage time or your Friday low usage time is due to the company down the hall," says Fein. You likely share the same ISP connection out of the building. If your office neighbor is in front of you on the data cables, there's nothing you can do but turn to your ISP.

"You don't have a lot of pull with your ISP, but you can raise the issue and talk to your neighbors in the building to have them raise the red flag, too," Fein adds. Ask the ISP to investigate. It may be able to reroute traffic or upgrade routers and other equipment to handle more bandwidth. And if your ISP fails to take action, it may be time to shop for a new vendor.

Sometimes the problem is inside your own network. In that case, you'll need to consider technical solutions, whether you have in-house IT staff or rely on computer consultants to do the work. These solutions can remove network bottlenecks, and they don’t have to be expensive.

Segment your network

By creating department-level subnetworks, you can limit the impact of a high-bandwidth department on the rest of the network. For example, if the graphics team regularly passes big files back and forth, moving them into a separate segment assures that only their bandwidth is affected.

Another approach is to use separate file servers or network-attached storage so that network traffic doesn't affect the rest of the company. This is a good option for file-heavy departments such as accounting (yes, really), marketing, and sales.

Upgrade less-expensive devices

Few smaller businesses have the budget to replace their entire IT infrastructure. Instead of laying out the cash to upgrade everything, consider upgrading specific equipment to improve network performance.

For example, if one file server is getting lots of usage, you can add multiple network cards and ports to increase its throughput. "Once you configure the server to combine both ports," says Fein, "you'll have one much bigger port that can move data much more quickly."

Strengthen Wi-Fi

Perhaps the servers are fine, but the wireless connectivity is poor. Use a free application, such as Wi-Fi SweetSpots or Wifi Analyzer, to test signal strength in different parts of the office. Some areas may have spotty coverage depending on the office layout and the location of your wireless access points.

One solution is to install wireless network extenders to ensure full coverage throughout the office. Another option, which may be less expensive, is to work backwards by discovering where people use the wireless network the most and then boost the signal in those specific spots.

Outside in

While more people work remotely these days, they still jump in and out of your network all day to download files and collaborate with colleagues. If they need to go through the entire network to do so, that can impact performance.

"In this case, you need to look at what people are accessing regularly and move it closer to the firewall," says Fein. For example, if salespeople download presentations all day long, you should move their server closer to the firewall so they don’t need to use too much of the network's bandwidth to get to their files. That lessens the impact on the network.

Avoid network noise

Reducing the noise on your network increases its throughput. Noise can have many causes, including fluorescent lights, a fan under a desk, or faulty laptop network cards.

If two users with equivalent devices and similar tasks have different response times from the same server, this may be the culprit, says Fein. The problem can lie in the port at the user's desk, the wiring in the wall, or the network patch cable to the closet. By moving closer to the server, step by step, you can identify the problem spot. Often, you can fix the issue inexpensively.

Sometimes, you'll need to upgrade functioning hardware. But it's perfectly possible for SMBs to reap the rewards of UCC without incurring networking upgrade costs.

Network optimization: Lessons for leaders 

  • SMBs often can’t realize UCC benefits due to network bottlenecks.
  • When troubleshooting your network, look first for external problems. ISPs can have network bottlenecks, too.
  • You can resolve many network issues inexpensively or for free.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.