The one-box network

Monster Mortgage has about 30 employees, and they know about mortgages, not networks. “We’re all sales people,” says Nick Ametrano, vice-president of the Toronto-based mortgage broker, “so technology flew over our heads fairly quickly.”

So when the company looked for a network to carry both data and voice between its Toronto and Vaughan, Ont., offices, simplicity was a key criterion.

That’s not uncommon. Few small businesses have the money, the time or the IT resources to install and maintain complex networks that rely on multiple devices and take lots of configuration.

Fortunately most don’t need to, thanks to simple networking hardware aimed at smaller organizations with limited networking needs. You might call them one-box networks – appliances that combine in a single device the essentials of network routing and security.

“We’ve seen this trend over-all in the marketplace of consolidation of functions,” says Dave Roberts, vice-president of strategy and marketing at Vyatta Inc., a Belmont, Calif., open-source networking vendor. “In the old days, three or four years ago, everybody would have three or four boxes sitting behind their connection to the internet.” Today, says Roberts, one box can take on all those functions.

Suppliers such as NetGear Inc., SonicWall Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. (thanks to its Linksys acquisition in 2003) — all of San Jose, Calif.— and Fountain Valley, Calif.-based D-Link Corp. particularly address this space, says Mark Tauschek, lead analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“What you can get for small business is sort of all-in-one little appliances,” Tauschek says. They do network routing as well as providing firewall, anti-virus and anti-spam protection, intrusion prevention and virtual private network (VPN) support. Prices start in the $400 range and go up to around $2,000 for the basic hardware, with additional licensing fees depending on the number of users, says Tauschek.

Such devices are most suitable for those organizations with fewer than about 50 network users, Tauschek advises. “Fifty seems to be the tipping point where you have to move into a little bit more sophisticated device.”

The “one-box” distinction starts to blur toward the top of the category. In some cases there will be two boxes: one handling networking functions and one handling security. But for smaller organizations, a single appliance can do it all.

SonicWall’s TZ line of network appliances, ranging from $300 to $795 (U.S.), combine network routing and internet access with unified threat management (including firewall, anti-virus and anti-spam software), virtual private network and wireless support.

A key feature of the three models is support for 3G cellular data connections to the internet, says Dmitri Ayrapetov, SonicWall’s product line manager for network security devices. That provides instant failover if the primary wired connection fails, he says, and allows the devices to be used at remote locations like construction sites.

Ayrapetov also says SonicWall has emphasized speed in the TZ line. Early one-box networking products often created a bottleneck because their security functions could not keep up with data traffic – sometimes leading users to turn off some of the security. “We want the customers not to turn off the security features.”

The choice of simple network products like this is growing. “Vendors have found that there is a real market in the small-business space that really had been left unserved,” Tauschek says.

One reason it didn’t happen sooner, Roberts adds, is that networking needs weren’t as clearly understood. “Nobody was sure what they needed right at the connection point to the internet. Now it’s pretty clear.”

Cisco’s UC500 platform takes the integration concept into voice and video. Besides routing plus VPN, firewall and other security capabilities, the UC500 incorporates voice and video capabilities (the UC in the name stands for unified communications) and support for wireless networking, says Todd Madgett, national sales lead for small business at Cisco Canada. The box comes with a configuration tool to make it easy to set up and works for small businesses with little or no IT expertise, Madgett says. “The configuration and setup time is very easy.”

Monster Mortgage chose the UC500 to provide voice and data networking between its two offices. With voice over IP, Ametrano says, calls are now easily routed to phones in either office, eliminating problems with dropped calls. A Cisco reseller took care of the installation and setup.

Small-business products like the UC500 are part of the heritage of the Linksys brand Cisco acquired six years ago, but Cisco has moved them under its flagship brand while keeping Linksys for consumer networking products, Madgett notes. Vyatta’s 514 appliance is aimed at small businesses and branch offices and combines routing, firewall, VPN and support for a range of internet connections.

Hewlett-Packard sells the MSM323, a wireless access point with built-in security features suitable for providing wireless networking to a small office or public hotspot.

These simple appliances have some limitations. “It’s not a best-of-breed device,” Tauschek says, in the sense that a one-platform unit probably doesn’t do any one function as well as the best single-function products out there — “but you might not need it.”

Setting up these one-box products should be fairly simple. Setup wizards simplify the process, but can’t eliminate the need to understand your business networking needs and factors affecting the way your installation needs to be set up — such as whether your internet service provider gives you multiple IP addresses or whether you have a single address and will need to implement network address translation, or what protocols your applications will use and through what ports your firewall needs to allow traffic. “It might be good advice to get some help from somebody with some IT knowledge,” Tauschek suggests, “that can at least work through the setup with a small business owner.”

The various technology vendors’ reseller partners, or independent consultants, can help with those issues.

“I think my advice for very small businesses is you know, keep it simple,” Tauschek says. “Buy an all-in-one device that does everything that you need. Other services can be outsourced.”

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