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What you need from your routers in today's network environment

As we push toward IP network environments, multi-functional routers offer many benefits.

Nothing in IT seems easy these days.

Many IT departments are still taking a wait-and-see attitude toward making capital purchases, and enterprises everywhere are looking to improve network performance, control access costs, and plan for the future. At the same time, growth in the use of public and private networks for voice, video, and data traffic has increased the requirements placed on routers and other networking components to such an extent that the complexity impacts the device's effectiveness and performance.

Alan Rice

As we push toward IP as well as MPLS-based network environments, "traditional" single-function devices still account for the majority of routers deployed in today's networks. However, a new generation of routers has recently started to make inroads. These multi-faceted devices combine high performance routing with other capabilities such as network monitoring, bandwidth shaping, and traffic conversion (CSU/DSU functions), promising enhanced speed, reliability, security and scalability. The specific challenge facing multifunctional router platforms is to combine key requirements, such as flexibility, throughput performance, future-proof technology, reliability, and manageability, in an easily scalable platform, and at a competitive price. Let's briefly examine each of these requirements as they apply directly to administrators and end users in today's belt-tightened, networked enterprise environment.

Today's routers need to facilitate the migration from legacy TDM voice, traditional Frame Relay service, and traditional "best-effort" routing to enabling the more complex, differentiated services offered with IP and MPLS networks. Toward this end, one key aspect of a router's flexibility is its compatibility with current industry standards and protocols. When components such as a router in the local area network (LAN) and across the wide area network (WAN) can easily communicate with each other based on these standards, the unattractiveness of purchasing a proprietary hardware solution and the resulting vendor "lock-in" become apparent.

Another key aspect to look for in router flexibility is the use of an adaptive architecture that lets enterprises add bandwidth or features cost effectively and in a timely manner. While traditional routers are hardware driven, the new generation of routers is actually software driven, allowing new features to be downloaded and installed easily via a software feature key -- with no wasted time waiting for hardware modules to arrive or with installations that could cause network downtime.

Throughput performance
A study that was recently conducted by Infonetics Research ("User And Service Provider Plans For Data Centers And Hosting, North America 2003") shows that performance plays a dominant role when deciding about the deployment of a router. And there is little argument that enterprises should be able to utilize the bandwidth that they are paying for. However, when it comes to maximizing the circuit availability and throughput performance of the WAN connection, traditional router products now fall short because of the additional burdens placed upon them. The good news is that multi-function routers with integrated hardware and software enable high-speed packet transfer at wire-speed while providing increased connection reliability. Integrated network monitoring capabilities in these devices can even help diagnose and identify congestion problems before they become an issue.

Future-proofing technology
If an enterprise is striving to future-proof its network by implementing router solutions that are equipped to enable emerging technologies such as DiffServ and MPLS, then the new generation of routers again provides an excellent solution. Advanced DiffServ features allow users to take advantage of QoS and MPLS services as they become more widely available. Overall, the next-generation-ready router needs to offer simple-to-use, yet powerful methods for configuring, monitoring, and tuning traffic to maximize performance of common business-critical applications such as enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management, while ensuring the quality of delay-sensitive voice and video over IP services.

In today's ultra-competitive marketplace, business success often depends on the connectivity of the corporate network and the continuous ability of end users within the organization to work online. With the "last mile" being the most vulnerable point in the network, access redundancy is increasingly important for businesses. According to Infonetics, roughly two-thirds of organizations consider redundancy an important feature for routers. Respondents are painfully aware that things fail, and they are building that expectation into their deployments.

The next generation of routers addresses those concerns and implements redundancy capabilities into the device either by using multilink technology, whereas load balancing and load sharing is leveraged, or providing Ethernet backup via DSL or modem cable. Whether it is to duplicate T1 access lines, or to take advantage of DSL and cable modem broadband services to backup Frame Relay services with IP-VPN tunnels, network access redundancy is no longer a luxury -- it has become standard practice. Deploying a reliable router product that acknowledges the reality of unexpected occurrences leads to practical benefits, as well as peace of mind for CIOs and network managers. In addition, when not used for redundancy purposes, the additional WAN port(s) can typically enable additional bandwidth, effectively increasing the potential capacity of the device, further increasing its usefulness.

While the preferred method to configure and troubleshoot a router will continue to be the de-facto standard Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI), it is critical to have a simplified management user interface, and ideally, a choice of interfaces for administrators. CLI is like a programming language network certified engineers love to hate, but can't live without.

Small and medium enterprise customers with limited IT resources and networking expertise readily appreciate an easy-to-use user interface mode, or even an interface as user friendly as a Web browser format. As an example of when this simplistic interface might be used, with remote troubleshooting, certified network engineers working with less skilled remote users can help them to troubleshoot their routers if the user interface is uncomplicated. Today's most effective routers can be configured and managed through a variety of interface modes, and even entirely on a remote basis, making them manageable, practical solutions for today's enterprises.

Scalability and cost-effectiveness
Meeting growth requirements and budget constraints at the same time can be a daunting task. Getting the most out of router purchases often means packing the most practical features into the most cost-effective package or platform, which is where multifunctional routers excel. Flexible multifunction routers help businesses to take full advantage of today's private leased line, Frame Relay, IP-VPN, and MPLS-based differentiated services, as well as providing room for bandwidth and service enhancement or growth, later.

The full integration of software infrastructure in today's new router platforms enables administrators to perform remote and easy network configuration and administration, eliminating costly truck rolls and saving valuable IT resources, as the network grows in size and functionality. Today's administrators are interested in developing networks that allow them to easily upgrade and customize, according to emerging needs and applications. Scalable, flexible, multifunctional router platforms allow network managers fulfill their roles, while avoiding excessive operational costs and lowering total cost of network ownership.

This was last published in March 2004

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