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The majority of small and midsized businesses (SMBs) find the price performance trade-off that broadband Internet access delivers nearly irresistible. Recent statistics indicate that the majority of such organizations and offices prefer broadband -- which usually means cable or some form of DSL -- when and where it is available to them.
But a new class of access device has emerged to service the very kinds of applications and connections that small offices need most, and often at an extremely affordable price. Most major networking and equipment vendors with strong telecommunications or cable TV interests offer a variety of combination devices. The names vary, from router/gateways, Internet devices or broadband access devices, but nearly all of them offer a core of common connections and capabilities. Many also offer numerous value-adds that small business owners may find attractive or compelling as their needs dictate.
The common core features and connections include the following:
- Many devices go both ways and provide connections that work either with DSL or cable, though some go only one way or the other.
- Multiple ways to connect from broadband to a PC or network, including Ethernet and USB links.
- Switched Ethernet capability for three or four ports, usually with automatic 10/100 sensing. Those that aren't switches (most of them are) include three or more hub ports instead.
- Built-in routing/switching functions, along with firewall and NAT. Many such devices also include virtual private network (VPN) support (usually for some form of IPSec access).
- Built-in Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol capability: The device acts as a client to the Internet provider, and as a server to clients on the LAN side (usually for up to 253 clients, the maximum number of valid addresses available on a typical Class C IP network segment).
Less common, but still widely available features on some (but not all) such devices comprise a grab bag of capabilities (and seldom will any single device support all of these):
- Wireless versions of these devices are widely available, most able to handle 802.11b and various versions of 802.11g, along with the latest security and encryption features.
- Voice over IP (VoIP): Some devices support VoIP and include jacks for conventional handsets (some can even fail over from IP phone links to POTS (plain old telephone service) phone links when that's required); some devices include all the aforementioned technology inside an IP telephone handset.
- Some devices support other IP services, including e-mail, domain name server or Web capabilities. Some even offer remote access server capability for external users seeking a network logon session.
The good news is that many of these devices are surprisingly affordable. Several favorites cost less than $100. Here's a sampling:
- The D-Link Express EtherNetwork 4-Port Broadband Router (Dl-604) includes lots of interesting firewall capabilities including URL filtering and domain blocking, VPN pass-through support for PPTP, L2TP and IPSec and a friendly Windows Wizard to help the install process. ($45 MSRP)
- The Belkin Cable/DSL Gateway Router (F5D5231-4) offers similar capabilities to not just Windows users, but also to Macintosh, Linux and Unix hosts as well. It even offers some basic intrusion detection and logging services. ($68 MSRP)
- The Zoom 5565 X5v Modem adds VoIP support (for external IP or conventional POTS handsets) and more advanced firewall capabilities (stateful packet inspection and DNS protection) to features found in the items just covered. But where both the D-Link and Belkin boxes work with either cable or DSL, the Zoom device works only with DSL. ($99 MSRP)
Another notable item in this lineup is the Zultys Zip 4x5 IP phone/Internet gateway combo. Though it costs $400 (or $450 with a BlueTooth-based wireless headset), it includes all of the core features mentioned (plus a few others related to networking and telephony applications) and even some nice frills like an NTP time server and voice activated calling features. It also works with either cable or DSL links, and offers five switched 10/100 Ethernet ports. Considering that other devices plus a similarly equipped IP handset cost more or less the same when purchased separately, this, too, is a pretty potent combination.
Again, this is just a small sample of the many offerings available. If you are considering a switch to wireless networking or other network upgrades, or are installing a new network, research the many access devices that work with broadband connections. Find out if your cable or internet provider offers managed services. Here are more resources:
Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer, trainer and consultant who specializes in matters related to information security, markup languages and networking technologies. He's a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites and technology editor for Certification Magazine, and he writes an e-mail newsletter for CramSession called "Must Know News."