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Maintaining Your Shop's 'Circulatory System'

20 quick fixes to keep your network flowing smoothly.

Digital systems rely heavily on networks. If the computers that run everything make up the brains of today’s printing systems, networks are the veins and arteries that pump the lifeblood of data through the system. The brains couldn’t function without them. But like the human circulatory system, networks can become clogged or beat irregularly, and when that happens, the entire system can become endangered and even fail.

For the most part, network problems simply slow everything down. Staying with my human-body analogy, it’s quite possible to have systems that are clogged and slowing things down without even noticing any symptoms-the slowdown takes place gradually over time, and it is barely noticed until things have become so bogged down the whole system seems sluggish.

For human systems, diet and exercise are the best prescriptions for keeping the circulatory system at prime operating efficiency. For computer systems, it is a matter of searching out and fixing a number of possible causes.

What follows is list of 20 quick fixes to keep your network flowing smoothly. For organizational purposes, I’ve placed each into these categories: "protocols and settings," "browsers, FTP, and e-mail," and "hardware."

Protocols and settings
Load balancing: The idea here is to determine who is using the system resources and how. How much data is actually flowing through your network servers at any one time? If there is high demand, data can be rerouted through a different server or partition to free things up. Also, is the server being accessed remotely? If so, adding a server in the actual building where the data is needed can relieve congestion. It doesn’t need to be an expensive piece of equipment to have dramatic results if the traffic loads are out of balance.

Turn off IPX: This is known as a very "chatty" protocol, and turning it off improves overall throughput. Also turn off NetBEUI, assuming you are using TCP/IP. If for some reason you need these legacy protocols, you will not be able to do this.

Routing protocols: You are probably already using some routing protocols rather than inefficient static protocols.

Increase default values: For send and receive buffer space, increase to at least 64k on all clients and servers.

Router settings: Your router has an access control list that should be regularly optimized. Items not specifically deleted when computers, printers, or other devices are removed from the network will remain on the list, and your server can spend a lot of time looking for connections that no longer exist.

Optimize IP addressing: Unused addresses can slow systems down.

Multicasting settings: When multicasting is turned on, data streams can be sent to multiple recipients with less bandwidth.

Look for "chatty" services: Sometimes, individual client computers will have unneeded services turned on by default, or because of some old applications that are no longer running. Just checking the settings on the server may not be enough, particularly if employees are installing their own upgrades. Default settings may not be the best for your network.

Browsers, FTP, and e-mail
Change your browser: Those in the know believe Firefox is a leaner (and faster) browser than Internet Explorer, and operates with less system overhead. Both browsers support "pipelining"- reducing a processor’s cycle time-but I’m told that Explorer’s level of support is not as good.

Limiting browser access: A lot of very graphic-rich websites are out there, and these can take up a lot of bandwidth. It’s possible to limit access to approved sites-just keep in mind that you don’t want to prevent access to sites your employees need to get to in order to do their jobs.

Separate FTP hosting: Print shops often need to push large files back and forth over the Internet using FTP protocol. It may make sense to use a service that provides an off-site server to host these files. This way, your own server and network bandwidth are only tied up when you’re accessing the file-not when your client is accessing it. These servers can also be used for collaborating on files (editing and commenting) in production.

E-mail attachments: Products similar to remote FTP hosts will automatically re-route all e-mail attachments (or those over a certain size) to a separate server either on-site or offsite. In addition to avoiding clogging the network, these systems also help in virus control.

Hardware
Move to gigabit Ethernet: Many new computers have gigabit Ethernet as standard. But keep in mind that to really take advantage of this increased speed, all of the hubs, routers, clients, and servers must support it.Check wires and cables: A bad cable or wiring that’s not configured properly or is the wrong type can really slow things down at your operation.

How old is your hardware: Switches and hubs have become much less costly, and upgrading them can make a big difference. You can now install new and faster switches into existing hubs for a fraction of what they might have cost when you originally purchased the hub.

Keep your most demanding software on the fastest hardware: It doesn’t pay to run applications that are resource heavy on older machines. Put these on your latest upgraded hardware and move less-demanding applications to older machines.

Short runs: Conventional wires do have length limits. Keep your cable lengths as short as possible.

Adding ports: Sure, it’s possible to add network switches in the middle of the network, but it will also slow things down. If you are piggybacking to open more ports, you might be much better off springing for a new central hub with more ports. It might also be the time to go with a gigabit hub.

Unix/Linux and Apple Mac OS X server: Many print providers are regularly using Apple OS X client computers, so one solution might just be using an OS X or other Unix flavor for the server. All current Apple computers and servers have gigabit Ethernet standard, and OS X is a true Unix server with far fewer protocols and services to conflict. They also accept Windows clients. There are several other Unix and Linux servers available.

Windows Vista: I know of no one who is recommending Vista for print providers at this time. Several sources have urged users to "wait and see" before installing the new OS. There are several current applications commonly used that do not work as expected with Vista. Once those issues are resolved, Vista is said to provide greater security over networks. Note that older machines may not be able to run Vista.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.