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How To Avoid a Bad Church Network

June 17, 2004

© 2004 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

Many disagree about the best way to design church computer networks.  Someone once said that if you ask three network engineers how to build a network you’ll get four answers!  But is there a way to tell if a design strategy makes sense?  I think so.

Three Design Approaches
Having served many hundreds of ministries, we’ve seen that networks fall into one of three design approaches:

  1. Reactive.  Many networks have grown simply because the ministry’s needs have grown beyond what anyone ever anticipated.  Each time there’s been a new need, someone has driven down to a local store and bought whatever they stocked that looked like it would meet the need.  This the largest category of networks.
  2. Directed.  Many ministries have hired vendors to install their networks.  Through the informed input of team members, the vendor was hired and told exactly what to do.  This is the second largest category of networks.
  3. Strategized.  Some ministries have hired vendors to design and install their networks.  They tell the vendor what their needs are or hire a vendor who has done many ministry networks and trust the vendor to design, spec, install, and support the network.  This is the smallest category of networks.

Which Is Best?
Reactive and Directed networks can often get the job done, but also usually require lots of emergency support.  That kind of support costs ministries in two ways: the cost of the actual support or repair and the cost of lost time and productivity.  Personnel costs are usually the largest church budget category, so lost productivity can add up to huge numbers over time.

Strategized networks usually cost less to support.  The determining factor seems to be how the vendor approached the design of the network.  There are generally three approaches vendors take when designing church networks:

  1. Focus on Cost.  Churches appropriately want to focus as much as possible on their mission.  With a mission as essential and eternally impactful as The Church’s, this makes sense.  Many vendors thus look for the least expensive way to install the network, thinking they are saving the church a lot of money and doing a great job.  Unfortunately, these networks are rarely better than Reactive or Directed networks in their reliability and performance, and often cost a lot to support.
  2. Focus on Products.  Many network engineers start with a pre-determined set of products, then engineer the network to perform as best as possible with those products.  These networks often cost a lot to support and fall short of meeting user expectations.
  3. Focus on Needs.  Some network engineers start by getting a firm understanding of the ministry’s needs, then look for the best products to meet those needs.  These networks usually cost the least to support and often exceed user expectations.

Speaking the Truth in Love
Ministries have told us over the years that their needs are to use the software necessary to accomplish their mission with no system downtime.  They also need to keep costs minimal, focusing on program rather than on overhead.  With these in mind, we are shocked at the number of ministries who have settled for network strategies that crash often or need weekly support.  Those are expensive!

Is There Hope?
Yes.  Networks can be designed and installed that never crash.  They’re not expensive, they’re just strategized with the ministry’s needs in mind.  And they shouldn’t need an engineer on-site every week or two to keep it running.

Some don’t believe this is possible.  I don’t blame them!  If they’ve only experienced support-intensive networks, it is hard to believe.  But I know it’s true because I personally know many ministries around the country who have networks that run, and run, and run… and only have a network engineer show up when a major upgrade is scheduled every year or two.

Are You Trying to Sell Us Something?
No!  I just care about the mission of The Church and am tired of seeing so many network engineers take ministry money that could have gone towards building The Kingdom.

How Can We Have a Good Network?
The difference is in how the network design is approached.  When you talk with your network engineer, don’t tell him or her how you want the network designed.  Instead, tell them:

  • What your team needs to fulfill their ministries,
  • That you want a network that never crashes, and
  • That you want to spend less than $2000 for support annually.

Unless you have some unique needs, your network engineer should be able to do this for you.  If they can’t, then find another network engineer who can.  And hold them to it!  Your mission is too important to be compromised by bad network design.

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