Preparing your business for mobility

Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are in a state of transition when it comes to juggling network needs with mobile device use. A recent CDW report on small-business mobility found that more than three-quarters of IT managers have deployed smartphones to their workforce, and more than half have deployed tablets. However, many employees prefer using their own devices: Almost 90% of IT managers recognized that employees are using personal devices for work.

With the rise of mobility, network capabilities are more important than ever. In order to manage your mobile workforce successfully, it is vital to understand how mobile technology can affect network connections.

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In the past, businesses had an occasional guest who needed to connect a mobile device to the network. Now, most employees connect multiple devices to the business network. With music, movies, video calls and other downloadable media available at employees' fingertips, they sometimes access large media files via the business network -- even against the wishes of IT managers. This combination of multiple devices and large file downloads can strain your bandwidth and connection speeds.

Instead of trying to fight the tide, some companies simply allow any device on the network. Unfortunately, this can strain connectivity and invite internal security threats or even hackers. To maintain strong connection speeds and a secure network, it is critical to restrict connectivity and monitor your network.

Building a mobile-friendly network

There are two different aspects of your network that are important -- the distribution/access portion and the core data network.

When considering distribution/access, one size does not fit all. Desktops, thin clients, video, voice over IP (VoIP) and wireless -- as well as other devices and network data -- all have unique switch configuration needs. To maximize network efficiency, avoid simply buying switches off the shelf and plugging them in. While this basic setup will move data, various devices and high-end content will start eating up bandwidth.

A better way to configure your network is to survey "what" and "who." What devices will have permission to access the network? What type of data will the network transfer? Who will access the network? Should a CEO have more privileges or a better connection than a guest?

These may seem like simple questions, but each answer builds your understanding of network requirements and routing protocols. Building network restrictions and accessibility based on these preferences -- such as bandwidth limitations by device and priority connections for employees rather than guests -- will enable a quick and efficient network.

Securing a mobile-friendly network

Security is just as important as network design. Limiting your network to employees and approved guests avoids excessive bandwidth spikes from unwanted users. Network security can further enhance connectivity by preventing malicious attacks that slow connectivity and put business data at risk.

A basic network password provides a thin layer of security, but it doesn't fully secure business data or prevent unrestricted network access from guests. If a business only provides a password on its core data network, any guest connecting to the network can access data that passes through it in order to secure personal information or valuable business data. To boost security, consider a network access control (NAC), which enables IT managers to set different privileges for various employee groups and for guests.

Wireless connections can also invite security threats by being visible outside of the building itself. Although a virtual private network (VPN) provides a secure connection, it is best to design a wireless network to provide just enough coverage for the physical business space. This prevents potential hackers from accessing the network from the surrounding business area, such as a parking lot or nearby building.

Once employees and guests have access to the network, there are many tools offered by various solutions providers that can help your business monitor mobile devices and manage network access. Security platforms, such as Cisco's Identity Services Engine (ISE), enable you to look at each device connecting to the network and to set policies allowing and restricting access on an individual device basis. Mobile device management (MDM) solutions, which require employees to install software on their mobile device before connecting to the work network and using it for work, can also help IT managers control what business data can be accessed through both company- and employee-owned devices.

The effects of mobility on your network may seem overwhelming at first, but the knowledge and technology to manage your network accordingly are readily available. Consider your unique network needs and talk to a trusted solutions provider about a path forward. A few minor investments can go a long way to optimize network efficiency and security.

About CDW: CDW is a leading provider of technology solutions for business, government, education and healthcare. Ranked No. 32 on Forbes' list of America's Largest Private Companies and No. 270 on the Fortune 500, CDW was founded in 1984 and employs more than 6,900 co-workers. For the trailing 12 months ended June 30, 2012, the company generated net sales of more than $9.9 billion. For more information, visit www.CDW.com.

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This story, "Preparing your business for mobility" was originally published by Network World.

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