Do you need a company network?

Man in suit with graphic representing people in a network

For decades the company network has been an essential cog in the machine of the small business, powering email, file storage and collaboration, providing a secure space where information could be held and shared. For those responsible for a small business's IT provision, managing and maintaining the network has been a core part of their job. However, many small businesses and small business IT managers are beginning to wonder whether some of that effort could be put to better use. As the capabilities that used to be provided by the network are shifted to services and platforms in the cloud, is it time for small businesses to abandon the network altogether?

True, it sounds like heresy, but think about it. Microsoft or Google can run email more effectively and more securely than the average on-premise network and at a lower cost per seat. Either of them or Box or Dropbox can sell you enterprise-grade storage as a service, enabling you to store and share files as securely as you can from a local server.

You can use Salesforce or Insightly to handle customer relationships and Xero or QuickBooks to run accounts, while providers such as Cisco would love to help you with your productivity, collaboration and messaging requirements, with apps that deliver capabilities you'd struggle to match on-premise. Want to run new applications to enhance your business? Just spin up a virtual server on Amazon or Microsoft Azure. Why bother with the network? Why not just connect to the internet in the most immediate way possible and do everything through the cloud?

The case builds

The arguments keep stacking up. Maintaining and upgrading the network isn't cheap, requiring additional investments in new hardware, new infrastructure and software to manage it and keep it all running efficiently. Even in a small business, it's taking up the time of IT specialists who could be working on projects with more obvious business value or worse of part-time IT staff who have additional business responsibilities to balance. And arguably the cloud is a better fit for the needs of today's small businesses, where streamlined costs, agility and speed are crucial. Moving applications and data to the cloud also makes it easier to take advantage of new services that promise to bring machine learning, AI and analytics down to a level small business can afford.

There's definitely evidence in favour of this view. Corporations as big as General Electric Co. in the US are rethinking their network strategy to give employees a direct connection to the public internet, effectively using the internet as a super-network through which to hook up users, datacentres and a host of online services. Back in 2016 Gartner predicted that not only would a corporate no cloud' policy become increasingly untenable, but that more leading-edge IT capabilities would soon be available only in the cloud, forcing even reluctant organisations to adopt.

This doesn't mean that it's practical or advisable for many medium and larger enterprises to rush into a cloud-only strategy for many the requirements will be too large and concerns about latency and security too big but a larger proportion of IT operations will inevitably move that way, while a more intelligent, heavily-automated, intent-based approach to networking will see them optimise and reduce the workload from what remains.

All you need is the connection

Smaller businesses don't need to be so cautious, but how do you make the shift? Partly it's a question of having the right infrastructure in place and primed for digital transformation. While the growth of 5G communications might change things in the next few years, your business still needs a connection to the wider Internet, so wireless access points, routers, switches and Ethernet, where applicable, are still very much in need. If you're moving to the cloud at the same time as a general shift towards mobility and flexible working, then you need true business grade wireless access points and infrastructure a cheap home router won't do the job. SMBs might also want to make strategic investments in software-defined, cloud-managed network infrastructure and security appliances, like those in Cisco's Meraki line. These can take minutes to get up and running and save many hours in terms of configuration and management, while giving you best-in-class security.

Beyond that, it's a question of where the move to cloud can replace existing applications or give you new capabilities potentially even empowering new working practices. For instance, Cisco's cloud-based collaboration tools could give you audio and video-conferencing capabilities, complete with screen-sharing, without a major investment upfront in either hardware or software. This could help teams working inside and outside of the office collaborate, or replace some physical meetings, saving both travel costs and time.

Cisco's Jabber, meanwhile, could replace existing phone systems with instant messaging, voice and video calls, voice messaging, desktop sharing, conferencing and presence. The unified communications service works across the full range of PCs, laptops and mobile devices, and the cloud supports collaboration and gives teams new tools to work together. When you make the shift, why not take advantage? All you need is an internet connection.

Discover more technology and business insights at Cisco's dedicated hub for small and medium businesses.

Stuart Andrews

Stuart has been writing about technology for over 25 years, focusing on PC hardware, enterprise technology, education tech, cloud services and video games. Along the way he’s worked extensively with Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android and Chrome OS devices, and tested everything from laptops to laser printers, graphics cards to gaming headsets.

He’s then written about all this stuff – and more – for outlets, including PC Pro, IT Pro, Expert Reviews and The Sunday Times. He’s also written and edited books on Windows, video games and Scratch programming for younger coders. When he’s not fiddling with tech or playing games, you’ll find him working in the garden, walking, reading or watching films.

You can follow Stuart on Twitter at @SATAndrews