Why Have a Network?

Any organisation that uses more than a handful of computers can cut costs by installing a network. Networks provide many benefits, but the installation of a network requires considerable commitment and investment, and brings with it many new challenges. Some of the more important benefits of networks, and the the kind of management issues they raise, are outlined below.

The benefits of computer networks

The process of storing, managing and controlling access to an organisation's data is facilitated by the creation of a computing environment in which the data can be stored at a secure, central location. Data management activities such as backing up and restoring critical system data and document version control are greatly simplified, and can often be automated. Application programs and utilities can be installed on an application server, simplyifying maintenance, software upgrades, and the management of software licences. Services such as network printing increase the efficiency of employees, and allow the deployment of expensive hardware such as colour laser printers, copiers and fax machines to be optimised.

Networks also make many forms of electronic communication possible. Perhaps the oldest form of electronic communication, electronic mail (or e-mail), allows the virtually instantaneous transfer of both text messages and file attachments from one computer terminal to another computer terminal anywhere in the world, provided they are both connected to the Internet. Increased bandwidth and the availability of low-cost audio-visual equipment have made video conferencing services a realistic for both businesses and private individuals, and face-to-face virtual meetings can now be conducted between users anywhere in the world at little or no additional expense. As the financial and environmental cost of travel increases, an increasing number of people are becoming telecommuters, working from home or from a local tele-working facility. They can communicate electronically with collegues and supervisers, and have remote access to their organisation's central network, allowing them to add, update or retrieve data as and when required, and at any time of the day or night.

Management issues

The benefits brought by networks inevitably have a cost, not just in terms of purchasing the equipment and software necessary to implement the network, but also in terms of its upkeep and management. There are, of course, some obvious ongoing costs associated the network, such as the electricity required to power it, the computer consumables used in the course of its daily operation, and the cost of the IT staff responsible for maintaining the network and providing technical support to users.

Network security is a major issue that cannot be underestimated, since any breach in security can have far reaching consequences for the organisation, its employees, and its clients. The very fact of having a large number of computers interconnected, often with acceess to external networks, creates a whole host of potential security threats. Network access must be carefully controlled, and network activity constantly monitored. Measures must be put in place to counter all of the potential security threats, and to safeguard the organisation's interests.

Routine network maintenance will include the monitoring of critical network services, and the hardware devices and communications links upon which those services depend. From time to time it may become necessary to upgrade network servers and workstations, interconnection devices, cabling, and software in order to keep up with the increasing demand for bandwidth, processing speed, and data storage space.

The need for user support will be ongoing, and users will need to be trained in the use of network resources in order to optimise their productivity and prevent costly mistakes from being made.

The ongoing costs for a network in terms of maintaining performance, enforcing security, and ensuring that employees have the required competencies are significant. If the network is well-designed, correctly implemented, and efficiently managed however, the benefits should far outweigh the costs.