The 6 must-have features small businesses should look for in a cloud-based managed network

Good technology is critical to support the growth and competitiveness of almost every small-to-medium-sized business. Nowhere is this truer than with the network.

Whether it’s a café chain offering free Wi-Fi to customers, a busy retailer needing to process contactless payments both quickly and securely, a rapidly growing start-up juggling a growing range of BYO devices, or a factory relying on CCTV to protect its premises, the performance of the underlying network is key. 

Indeed, an enterprise-grade network has become a fundamental requirement for smaller businesses, especially those competing against larger companies with far bigger budgets.

Enterprise-grade networks; without the price tag or the hassle

The perennial challenge for any SMB is how to deploy a high-speed, high-performance network that will meet its rapidly-evolving business needs, yet doesn’t come with an inflated price tag. The problem here is many popular network switches come with a raft of features that only a larger business will ever care about but, because this functionality is built-in, it has to be paid for. 

There’s also another cost to consider; the management overhead. Overly complex networks require specialist technical support as they are often a hassle to deploy, configure and manage. How many restaurants or owner-managed firms have the time, expertise or, quite frankly, patience, to include network management in their daily duties?  

The answer is somewhere in the cloud

With their pay-as-you-go pricing models and an ability to scale up and down at will, smaller businesses are increasingly turning to easy-to-use cloud-based services to access enterprise-grade IT. While most businesses will be using – or at least be familiar with – cloud-hosted file sharing, storage, email, and specialist line of business services (think accounting, HR and marketing tools), it’s also possible for SMBs to manage their networks via the cloud.  

On the face of it, cloud-based network management means smaller businesses can have the best of both worlds; the network resilience and functionality that will underpin their growth, but without the aggravation or cost. They can add users, set security policies or even bring new office or shop networks online, without ever having to touch or even see a network switch.

However, not all cloud services are created equal; some cloud-based managed networks still require manual set up and configuration with layers of complexity that make them as impractical as on-premise systems. To help SMBs select the right solution for them, we’ve come up with six most important features to look for in a cloud-based managed network.

The 6 must-have features in a cloud-based managed network

  1. Zero-touch deployments
    Consumers expect their phones and tablets to work straight out of the box. The same should be true for wireless access points (APs) or network switches that arrive at a shop or branch office, ready for deployment. Staff on the ground shouldn’t have to do anything more than open up the box, plug in the equipment and press the ‘on’ button. Everything else should be automatic or managed remotely. 
  2. An easy-to-use console
    Few SMBs will have a team of IT experts to remotely manage all the switches, APs, users, guests and devices that will connect to their networks. Look for an easy-to-use, intuitive web-based portal or app that is understandable and simple to use, and that doesn’t bombard the user with too much information and jargon. 
    In just a few clicks, these consoles should make it possible to add new users, configure entirely new branch networks – often know as virtual local area networks (VLANs) – and automatically rollout software updates and security patches.
  3. Role-based permissions
    Look for a management solution that makes it quick and simple to set and enforce rules around which staff and guests can access what resources on the network, via what devices.
    For organisations with lots of casual visitors – cafes, restaurants, schools, libraries, leisure and health facilities, for example – it’s useful to provide an option for guests to use their social media logins to gain access to public Wi-Fi. In contrast, employees and authorised contractors will need access to other, more secure parts of the network, but avoid a one-size-fits-all solution which gives staff blanket network access. Instead, it should be possible to decide who can access what, based on their role. There’s simply no reason why waiting staff taking orders using a table, should be able to use that device to see HR or financial files.
  4. Enterprise-grade security
    When it comes to security, there can be no compromise. A data breach or network outage isn’t just embarrassing, it can be devasting or even fatal. At particular risk are smaller businesses, which have limited resources to cover the cost of GPDR-related fines, lost sales and a ruined reputation.
    Encryption is a must. With encryption, even if a hacker can gain unauthorised access to a network, they still cannot see anything of real value, for example, credit card numbers and customer details. 
    Another important security feature to look out for is round-the-clock, automated monitoring, where the network is constantly scanned for unauthorised or suspicious activity. If something dubious is spotted, real-time alerts should be generated so the business can take immediate and appropriate action.
  5. Compliance guarantees
    Check whether the management tool will send any network traffic to the cloud. If it does, it could have serious implications for compliance. For example, sensitive data held by European businesses, and therefore bound by GDPR as well as individual EU country rules, might find its way to data centres around the world where data protection regulations aren’t up to the same standard. Instead, opt for a cloud-based management solution where only the management functionality is in the cloud, not the network traffic. That way, businesses have more control over where their data resides and can rest assured they are compliant.
  6. Rock solid SLAs and support
    Check out what vendor support is available when the network isn’t functioning optimally. Some of the cheaper options may not have the appropriate service wrap for a non-IT savvy SMB. Look for a service that’s backed up with real experts, offers enterprise-class uptime and has a robust service level agreement.