Buying a multi-function router

Shortly after Cisco Systems Inc. introduced its Integrated Services Routers in 2004, the San Jose, Calif. firm reported ISR was one of its fastest growing products.

At the time, ISR routers were designed for branch offices and included both routing and call handling features.

Today, Cisco is not the only game in the multi-function router town. Other manufacturers, including Juniper Networks Inc., Hewlett Packard Development Co. LP and Adtran Inc. are also in the market. Industry analysts say there are several advantages to buying one device that does routing, call processing, security and wireless local-area networking.
Why buy a multi-function router

Space, power and management are three pros of multi-function routers, said Zeus Kerravala, distinguished research fellow at Cambridge, Mass.-based Yankee Group Research Inc.

One example of management is with Cisco’s ISR, where you could use the same user interface to manage routing, firewalls and virtual private networks, he said.
“You want all these things integrated into the router so you can take advantage of the fact that it’s network-aware.”“The benefits here are pretty clear,” said Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “If you are looking at a branch office or small enterprise site, you can benefit from a single partner to manage that location, or multiple locations.”
Angl added the upfront cost of buying one multi-function router may be high, compared to buying separate devices for routing, switching, call processing, wide-area network (WAN) optimization, security and wireless.
“But then to incrementally add services, that’s where you see the benefit,” he said. “It gives you the flexibility to add in a new module from the existing partners, versus bringing a new vendor into the picture.”
What to look for

Paul McDevitt, director of enterprise marketing for Cisco Canada, advises IT managers to consider not only what their network does now, but what users will want in five years.

“You need to look at the overall architecture of your network and see how the branch office plays within that.”
For example, more network traffic today is comprised of video content.
WhenCisco launched what it calls the second generation – or G2 – of its ISR routers last year, it unveiled Services Ready Engine, a feature that supports a terabyte of memory and is intended to archive video surveillance footage.
The second generation includes the 3900 series routers, which support voice and video services using Cisco’s Medianet technology. The motherboard for each of the four routers comes with a voice digital signal processing (DSP) module. The router can carry up to four PVDM3 slots, which lets users support up to 768 channels.
The Cisco 3900 Series can support up to four onboard PVDM3 slots and can scale up to 768 voice channels using the G.729a protocol. Cisco claims the 3900 router also supports video sessions using Cisco Telepresence products.
The 3900 series router comes in four models, which can be distinguished by the number of concurrent unified communications sessions and the number of  Survivable Remote Site Telephony, or SRST sessions.
For example, the 3945E has 450 concurrent unified communications sessions and 1500 SRST sessions. The Cisco 3925E has 400 concurrent unified communications sessions and 1350 SRST sessions. Figures for the 3945 router are 350 and 1200 and the specs for the 3925 router are 250 concurrent unified communications sessions and 730 SRST sessions.
They also support virtual private networking, intrusion prevention systems, authentication and public key infrastructure.
The ISR G2 routers also include the lower-end 1900 and 2900 series. While the 3900 series supports data transfer rates across the wide-area network of 350 Megabits per second (Mbps), the 2900 has 75 Mbps and the 1900 has 25 Mbps.
With the second generation, the ISR has “gone beyond” the ability to handle telephony, wireless and security, Cisco Canada’s McDevitt said. For example, they also have the EnergyWise technology, which automatically turns other devices, such as IP  phones, on and off, depending on rules programmed by administrators.
McDevitt said he did not want to comment on the  NetVanta routers made by Hunstville, Ala.-based Adtran, but an Adtran official was more than happy to comment on ISR.
Todd Lattanzi, Adtran’s senior product manager, claimed a benchmark test showed the NetVanta routers had a “tremendous performance advantage” over ISR.
Adtran commissioned Frank Ohlhorst, an American consultant and writer, to test the products. Ohlhorst compared the NetVanta 4430 to the Cisco 3925, the NetVanta 3450 to the Cisco 2911 and the NetVanta 3430 to the Cisco 1941. He tested it using a lab to simulate firewall, VPN, voice over IP traffic and Web browsing.
Ohlhorst concluded with what he called “real world bandwidth utilization,” the Adtran NetVanta 3430 got 87.6 Mbps while the Cisco ISR 1941 got 18.4.  The figures for the NetVanta 3450 were 88 Mbps while bandwidth for the Cisco 2911 was 51.4, according to Ohlhorst’s test results.
Retail stores

Lattanzi said Adtran has been successful in selling NetVanta multi-function routers into the retail market, so store keepers can add IP phones and wireless handheld inventory tracking computers.

One of Adtran’s customers, Lattanzi said, is a grocery store chain that uses NetVanta routers to manage wired and wireless networks from a single point. He added retailers are also looking for third-generation (3G) wireless connectivity in routers, so they can connect to a wide-area network in areas where telcos have yet to install high-speed wired networks.
Cisco is also aiming at retail, McDevitt said, with support in the ISR router for the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, or PCI DSS, which is used to secure credit and debit card transactions.
Swiss army knives
Despite Adtran’s claims of superiority over Cisco, the latter dominates the market.

“The router space is the most difficult part of Cisco’s space to penetrate,” Kerravala said, adding you pay a “premium” if you buy from Cisco.

He said Adtran and Hewlett-Packard, which recently acquired 3Com Corp., both make good low-cost routers.
He described the Cisco ISR as a “Swiss Army knife” of routers, with some features that people don’t need. But he suggested the fact that a product has a feature you don’t need does not always stop you from buying the product.
“Ask anyone who has a Swiss army knife if they have ever used the saw,” Kerravala said.
Angl said for some small firms or branch offices, a multi-function router “May not be something that makes sense in the near term.”
For example, Angl said, an office may already have the features it needs in existing hardware and software. Plus, he said, if you need to setup a wireless LAN, you may be better off buying equipment from a specialty vendor such as Aruba Networks Inc.
Angl said while Cisco has majority market share in the market, there are routers with other functions available from Juniper Networks Inc., Avaya Inc. and HP.
Juniper, he noted, has the Secure Services Gateway product line, which combine various functions such as firewall and virtual private networking, while Avaya inherited the Secure Router line, which includes firewall, VPN, WAN access and voice and video, from Nortel Networks Corp.
Pointing fingers
HP’s US$2.7 billion acquisition of 3Com augmented HP’s Procurve switch product line with 3Com’s switches and routers, plus the TippingPoint intrusion prevention systems.
“We don’t think multi-function routers are the most important thing,” said Dave Larson, HP’s senior director of advanced technology and a former 3Com executive. “You need to be able to choose either multi function or dedicated features depending on your needs.”
Although cost is “a critical factor” in choosing multi-function devices, Larson said there is no “rule of thumb” by which you can predict how much you will save.
But, Larson said, you will have a “significant cost savings” in the event of a problem because it will be easier to analyze the root cause. Therefore, he said, it will be one vendor is going to “own the problem” and will not be able to point fingers at another vendor.

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