A LAN (Local Area Network) is the only true way to connect computers and peripherals to one another. LANs have become a necessity over the years. Though LANs started out as a sensible and logical solution to the ever-increasing demand on data networks adding more users all the time, they have quickly morphed into something that has become a lifesaver for even the smallest of organizations.

LANs allow users to share and access information, software programs and applications within a given networked environment, easing the burden of today’s business operations, most of which rely heavily on access to such network staples as databases, shared operating systems and program files.

For installation purposes, there are three questions that need to be answered right off the bat.

First, the client must decide whether the system will be wired or wireless. This is even more important for contractors, since they are all too familiar with the issues that revolve around the great debate that pits wired against wireless systems. Armed with this knowledge beforehand, many contractors choose to tackle this issue right up front, and it is a wise thing to do.

Second, the type of technology for the LAN must be chosen. Ethernet remains the most popular choice of LAN technology, though others include Token Ring, Fast Ethernet, FDDI (Fiber Distributed Data Interface), ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and Local Talk.

Third, the LAN topology must be designed. LAN topology refers to the actual layout of the network, also called the configuration.

The issues of topology and technology can be decided later in the design process, but the issue of wired or not is something that should be addressed as soon as possible, mainly because of the expense associated with both the material and labor involved.

Miles of wire

Perhaps the most daunting decision nowadays regarding LAN design is whether to utilize a traditionally wired system or go with the popular new wireless version. Since, by definition, a LAN operates over a shared, common medium, the medium itself serves as the backbone of the entire network. Choosing the medium is an important decision that is usually made by the LAN designer once all requirements have been taken into consideration.

If a wired LAN is chosen, one needs to keep in mind that, as with most other wired solutions, distance becomes a driving factor. Organizations such as manufacturing plants, college and university campuses and military bases are physically spread out, yet all areas needing to be connected to the same network. In these cases, the distance factor needs to be examined extensively.

Typical LANs generally involve structured cabling such as coax, twisted pair or fiber optic cabling or a hybrid combination, depending upon the particular situation. Each option has its own set of pros and cons associated with it, so most LAN designers end up choosing the hybrid option to combat the distance problem with the appropriate solution.

It is becoming more and more common to utilize fiber optic cable as the backbone and then choose either coax or twisted pair for the individual station/peripheral runs. This seems to alleviate some of the distance problems associated with an all-coax or all-twisted pair solution, and it is an economical solution since it combines cabling technology. The hybrid method allows for many to experience the benefits of fiber without having to pay for an entirely fiber optic network.

This is not to say that an all-fiber LAN is not achievable, but due to the cost associated with such a network, many opt out of this choice early in the design phase. All-fiber setups are rare but they do exist, since large-scale operations such as corporations with thousands of employees in one location generally spare no expense; moving all that data around is crucial to their operations.

Why wireless?

If it is deemed too expensive, logistically impossible or too time consuming for a wired LAN to be installed, the next step would be to explore the option of a wireless LAN, which just seems to get more popular with each passing day.

One reason for choosing a wireless LAN is that some operations simply move around too much to be concerned with adhering to a wired network that dictates where items need to be located. This could be due to the physical structure of the facility or because some employees who rely on network access are out of the office environment on a routine basis.

The problem that still remains with an all-wireless LAN is that most contractors may have a hard time selling this particular solution. Many customers just are not comfortable with this type of network, mainly because of the bad press associated with the security aspect of wireless. Some still feel as if wireless LANs open up networks to hackers and those attempting to do harm.

Though the benefits are tangible and coveted, many who cannot bring themselves to accept an entirely wireless network go for compromise.

Door No. 3

If your client can’t quite make up his or her mind, go for a compromise.

Just as the LAN medium can be a hybrid, so can the actual LAN itself. The wired/wireless LAN hybrid option can be beneficial for a variety of reasons.

Take, for instance, operations that have equal numbers of employees working both in and out of the building on a regular basis; this hybrid solution would benefit all parties. Those working remotely need to have just as much access to information and applications as those housed within the building itself. This is especially important for businesses that have salespeople working on the road, since they need to be able to access company databases and e-mail whenever necessary.

This might be the ticket since it allows businesses to garner benefits from both options. It is, at times, easier on the contractor, too, since some of the obstacles associated with traditionally wired systems (hard-to-run areas) can be avoided with this solution, while still achieving high quality due to the wired portion.

Though the customer has the final say, contractors need to get personally involved in the decision-making process by providing clients with as much information as possible so that an educated decision can be made. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.