Networking

What Separates Business Routers From Consumer Routers?

More Business Router Features

Attaching a wireless access point (WAP) to your router adds wireless capabilities to your network.
You might be surprised to learn that many business-class routers don’t include integrated wireless networking. If the one you select doesn’t, you can easily add such capability by deploying one or more wireless access points.

Higher-end business routers, meanwhile, deliver scalability, redundancy, and even stronger security features. Scalability defines the router’s ability to expand as your business grows. Expanding a network’s hardwired capabilities is easy: Plug another multiport ethernet switch into one of the router’s ports. Voila! More ports! (If you’re operating a complex network with a RADIUS server, multiple VLANs, and other features, you might need to invest in a managed switch.)

The only way to increase your Internet bandwidth, though, is to get additional connections to your Internet service provider via your router’s WAN (wide-area network) ports. While consumer and low-end business routers typically have just one WAN port, higher-end business-class routers have multiple WAN ports, so you can establish more than one connection to one or more ISPs. Establish two or more connections to the same ISP, and you can improve your network’s performance through load balancing. Establishing two or more connections to different ISPs provides redundancy for business continuity (since it’s unlikely that two ISPs will suffer an outage at the same time). Cisco’s RV016 Multi WAN VPN Router ($450), for example, is outfitted with 16 Fast Ethernet ports, including two that serve as dedicated WAN ports. But you can configure five of the other ports to function as WAN ports (making a total of seven) for load balancing or redundancy.

Here are some of the other features you can expect to find in a business-class router:

  • Robust VPN: Business-class routers provide virtual private networks that can handle many more users (anywhere from 5 to 100), while offering much stronger security than consumer models do. At its best, a VPN will provide an environment in which a remote user’s experience is no different than if they were working in the office and hardwired to the network.
  • SSL portal and SSL tunnel VPNs: These types of virtual private networks rely on Secure Sockets Layer encryption, so that users can access the network using their Web browser. Through an SSL portal VPN, users access a gateway to the secure network and present their credentials. Once authenticated, they see a Web page that acts as a portal to other services on the network. An SSL tunnel operates in a similar fashion but adds active content--Java, JavaScript, ActiveX, Flash applications, and the like--that are not accessible with an SSL portal VPN.
  • Virtual networks (VLANs): Known as guest networks on consumer routers, VLANs can perform the same function on a business-class router. But you can also set up other VLANs to segregate traffic on your network, so that sensitive data from one department--human resources, for instance--stays contained within that department’s own network. An entry-level business-class router is capable of supporting several virtual networks, while a high-end model can support a dozen or more.
  • IPv6 support: IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) is replacing IPv4 as the protocol for directing Internet traffic. IPv4 uses 32 bits to define an IP address, which limits the number of addresses that can be created--and that limit has almost been reached. Since IPv6 uses 128 bits to define an IP address, it can create a much larger pool of addresses. Though many new consumer routers support IPv6, it’s a crucial requirement for a business-class router.
  • DMZ port: If you have a computer that needs direct access to the Internet--an email or Web server, for instance--look for a router with a dedicated DMZ port. This feature will isolate that computer from the rest of your network on a dedicated subnetwork, so that if the system becomes compromised, the intruder won’t be able to gain access to the computers on your primary network.
  • Content filtering: This feature is the equivalent of the parental controls in a consumer router. You can block access to certain Internet content by using keywords or blacklists (prohibited URLs), or by allowing clients to access only permitted sites through a whitelist.
  • Wireless Distribution System (WDS): This protocol allows a wireless signal to be repeated by up to four repeaters in order to extend the network’s range. It’s increasingly common on consumer routers, too.

Which Class of Router Suits Your Business’s Needs?

In this overview, I haven’t covered every single feature that distinguishes business-class routers from their consumer cousins, but I have hit the high points. If you’re still wondering which type is right for you, consider these final tips.

If you want the best security features, if you have many employees who require frequent remote access to your network, if you run your own email, Web, or RADIUS server, or if you need to set up advanced VLANs, you should look long and hard at a business-class router. If you need load balancing or failover redundancy, you should be looking at the higher-end business models.

You can probably get by with a consumer router if you have just a few employees (who don’t require VPN access), if you don’t need sophisticated VLANs, if you don’t operate your own Web, email, or other type of server that needs to be hosted in a DMZ, and if you don’t plan to operate a RADIUS server. But when you compare prices, you might be surprised to discover that a consumer model won’t necessarily save you money.

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