Should You Upgrade to a Business-Class Router?

by Ronald Pacchiano

There's big difference between a consumer router and a business-class router that can support a demanding small business network. Is it time -- and worth the cost -- to step up?

One of the biggest expenses a small business will face is building or upgrading its network infrastructure. The sticker shock associated with moving to a proper small business network can be overwhelming. It's hard for many small business owners to understand how that $150 router from Best Buy, which has served them well for so long, costs so much to replace.

But the fact is moving from a low-end SOHO router to a full blown business-class solution is an expensive proposition, and there really is no way around it. Just check out the list of available routers on the CDW website. You’ll see prices ranging from around $50 bucks to well over $2,500. What is about business-class routers that justify such a large investment, and why should you take on such a burden?

Who Needs a Business-Class Router?

The answer of course comes down to the needs of your business and what tasks and capabilities you require from your network during day-to-day operations. Say for example, that when you first started your business you worked out of a studio apartment and got by using the aforementioned SOHO router and Time Warner Cable’s Triple-Play package. But that was then.

Now you have two offices; the headquarters in New York City and a sales office in New Jersey, along with about half a dozen users and consultants that work across the U.S., perhaps even some overseas. In all you now have about 30 or 40 people that need access to your network resources.

In these situations, a low-end SOHO router won’t cut it, and you need to upgrade to business-class equipment. The cost may be daunting, but the best way to protect your business is to invest in a router specifically tailored for your business.

Why the sticker shock? The average person doesn’t understand the difference between modems, routers and wireless devices, mainly because Internet service providers (ISPs) consolidate all the functionality into a single box. But the components are quite different, each playing a separate, but complimentary role on the network.

A router connects two or more networks together. A modem provides access to the Internet. A router provides network security, but a modem does not. You don’t need a router to connect to the Internet, but you do need a router to provide Internet access to all of the systems on your network. They each have their part to play in the overall network infrastructure.  As such, business-class devices typically charge separately for each of these capabilities.

In addition, SOHO routers are designed with a focus on low-cost. In contrast, business-class routers focus on maximizing performance, and they can be customized to accommodate a wide variety of different network configurations. This flexibility comes at a price. Unlike the typical SOHO router, which employs an easy-to-use Web configuration utility, most business-class routers, like those by Cisco, use a complex Command Line Interface (CLI) that requires a network engineer to properly setup and deploy.

3 Business-Class Routers from Cisco

Cisco RV016 16-port 10/100 VPN Router
Notable feature: Multi WAN
Price: $419.99

Cisco 881W Integrated Services Router
Notable feature: Wireless router; 802.11b/g/n
Price: $671.99

Cisco 1841 Integrated Services Router
Notable feature: delivers multiple, concurrent services
Price: $999.99

Benefits of a Business-Class Router

What benefits can you expect from investing in a business-class router for your small business network? Well for starters networks with business-class routers support a lot more people more efficiently and reliably then SOHO routers ever could.

Remote connections alone place a lot of demand on a router, which can hamper performance for other network users. A router equipped with a fast processor and sufficient RAM will help maintain performance for everyone on the network.

Even more important, a business-class router provides a wider range of security features to protect your network. This includes a more sophisticated firewall, better antivirus, antispam and anti-spyware protection. This is also why a business router might be referred to by the term UTM, or Unified Threat Management, because it offers a range of security features for protecting your business network.

Even though your computers might already have antivirus software installed, Web security experts agree that adding another line of security on the network level significantly improves overall network security.

Many business-class routers can be configured to support multiple WAN ports. By having two dedicated WAN ports administrators can configure their network to support different performance scenarios. For example, routers equipped with dual WAN ports can be configured to use one as a primary and the other as a secondary. So in the event you’re primary ISP goes down, your network will still maintain Internet access via the secondary WAN connection.

Dual WAN ports also allow administrators to support load balancing. At times of increased network traffic, data packets can be distributed over both WAN connections to help minimize network congestion, thereby increasing overall network performance.

Business-class routers also give administrators far greater control over their network traffic thanks to advanced bandwidth management capabilities, which help improve quality of service (QoS). You can manage upstream and downstream bandwidth on either a service- or a port-based level. Plus, the admin can set each service to various priority levels to ensure that high-priority network traffic isn’t impeded on its way to its destination.

Unlike most SOHO routers that offer only VPN Pass-through service, which depends on a PC or server on the LAN to manage the VPN connections, business-class routers can often provide true VPN capabilities managed right from the router. This VPN capability creates encrypted "tunnels" through the Internet, allowing remote offices or traveling employees to securely link to your network via the public Internet.

The VPN features in business-class routers support full IPSec VPN capability using advanced encryption protocols to maintain privacy and security. In addition to end-user or client-to-gateway connections, business-class routers will also support IPSec tunnels for branch office connectivity, also known as gateway-to-gateway connectivity. This lets you link remote offices with your primary network.

Of course providing this type of service is dependent on a powerful broadband solution. Typical SOHO broadband routers can't provide the reliability needed to get the most of these types of connections, which is why business-class routers support dedicated circuit technologies like T1 lines, frame relay and ATM communications.

Another important differentiator is that business-class routers can support multiple global IP addresses. A global IP address is assigned to a computer or modem by an ISP and can be communicated with from anywhere on the Internet. Global IP addresses are unique and assigned only to a single computer or device. This is important if your company is looking to host its own Web server or email server.

You have many options when designing your small business network, and working with a qualified network engineer is the smart route to take. Remember, your network is your company’s greatest asset; it needs to it work well and be protected. If you decide that a business-class solution is right for your organization, please take the time to make sure it’s done right. After all, your business depends on it.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Apr 26th 2011
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