So, What Is a Network?

A network is essentially a way to share resources across your office. Check out my amazing drawing below, and you'll see how.

 

Your Internet leads in to a "switch" which connects everything in your network. Your desktop computers, file server, wireless access point, and a data backup device — if you have one — all connect out from your switch.

With a network, five colleagues can read and edit the same document from their own computer, plus you can develop shared folders to store joint resources and back up your files. Networks also enable resource sharing, an important consideration in all budget-conscious organizations.

Rather than buying one printer for every employee and replacing them when they wear out, an organization with a network can buy a single printer, connect it to the network, and configure it so every user in the organization can print to it.

In addition to those basic advantages of a wired network, your organization could become even more flexible with a wireless access point. With a wireless network, your staff and volunteers can stay connected to the Internet anywhere in the office.

Think about the thousands of schools, hotels, cafes, and other public places with wireless connections. These free you from having to be at home or at your desk to access information online.

Networking Your Nonprofit — Two Scenarios

At TechSoup, we're a larger organization that operates in more than one building. We can work at our desks and then take our laptops to meetings without dropping our Internet connection or access to our email.

We've also set up file servers and backups to help us share files and protect our data in case of a system crash. And speaking of servers, we've integrated ours into our phone system, so if someone leaves me a voicemail, it appears in my email as a message.

All this is possible thanks to our wired and wireless networks. But, like with any complex technology, there's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to networking your nonprofit, charity, or library's offices.

While developing a network, choosing a server, and weighing telecommunications options can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be.

TechSoup has grown over the years, but we didn't start out this big. Most organizations fall into the second scenario: an office with four to six computers, and staff looking to share Internet access and back up their data.

In this series of posts, we'll explore how networks work, and whether your organization could benefit from one. Then we explore different networking options.

Things to Think About

The following are some questions from our article — Networking 101: Understanding Your Needs — that might help to guide your network planning process by taking stock of what you have and need:

  • What network infrastructure, if any, do you have in place?
  • How many computers and wireless devices do you have?
  • Does your office's design and layout impose physical constraints on your planning process? For example, is there available space on your floors, walls, or ceilings (or in your walls in the form of conduits) where you can string your network cables?
  • What networked applications do your staff rely on most heavily, and how much bandwidth do these applications consume?
  • Are your computers primarily PCs, Macs, or do you have a mix of both?
  • Are you planning any changes to your technology infrastructure (such as new employees or applications) that might affect your networking needs?
  • How much money do you have budgeted for the installation and maintenance of your networks?

Network Size and Scale

Scale is usually the first and most important determination in network planning, as it will often determine or influence your other decisions.

Let's go back to our two scenarios: at TechSoup, we're a larger organization that operates in more than one building. This means we need more hardware, more servers, and more space to run all of those cords.

However, most nonprofits are like our other scenario, with a few employees in one large room. This means you can tuck a simple server somewhere out of the way, and perhaps run the cords you need around a baseboard.

While there are many scales of networks, most nonprofits and libraries only need to focus on those that impact small and mid-sized organizations.

This usually means LANs. A local area network (or LAN) is designed and implemented at the scale of a single building or office. Its primary function is to connect computing resources within a single organization. Learn more about network types and designs.

More Information on Networking Basics

For more help building a wireless network at your organization, check out:

Have a question? Ask it in our community forums where you can get advice from fellow nonprofits. We should note: setting up a wireless network can be tricky. If you don't have someone on staff with networking experience, hiring a consultant is something you should consider.

Keep Reading

Check out the rest of my short series on networks: