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Users never think about routers — unless they break. Small businesses often have the same attitude: If packets are flowing, the router is fine. But there are three reasons why you should examine, and perhaps update, your router: security, performance and redundancy.
A router links an internal network to the Internet. The Internet teems with hackers, thieves and other malevolent forces bent on destroying you, or maybe just stealing the passwords to your bank accounts. If you're a history buff, think of a router as the moat separating your castle from invaders. Moat equals firewall. And the drawbridge over the moat is the set of security rules inside the router that lets only friendlies in and out of your castle.
Lower-cost routers ($50–$200) have basic firewalls, intrusion detection and other security goodies. But the software can't be configured easily (the defaults are pretty good but may not be enough), and it can't be updated easily. These routers do a decent job fighting the security threats they know about for six months to a year, but then their protection gets stale. That means trouble.
Advanced routers, on the other hand, include configurable security software modules that can be updated and enhanced regularly. Modules can even be added as needed. What if you want to add a spam filter to block, or at least diminish, the flood of fraud ads before your mail server has to spend CPU cycles bouncing them? No problem: drawbridge up.
Such routers offer subscription services to keep software current. Prices range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the number of security options and other factors, such as performance.
Secure remote communications are important to growing companies as well. If everyone is in one location, remote access may not be an issue. But after a business expands, connecting remote offices to centralized resources, such as databases, becomes a productivity booster when done well, or a productivity killer when done poorly. Advanced routers can become the hub of a remote network and make remote users feel like one of the insiders.
Speaking of performance, no matter how fast your web access, users want it faster. Low-end routers pass through basic home and small business Internet access speeds well enough, but they don't have the bandwidth to handle upgraded Internet bandwidth. The trick to moving more packets through the router is CPU horsepower and memory, both of which cost more in routers, just like in computers. And putting Gigabit Ethernet chips on a router won't make the Internet access faster, but it will move packets between network segments at “line speed,” or the same speed as a local area network (LAN).
Finally, redundancy means several things in routers: Low-end routers have one Internet connection and just a few ports for internal LAN segments. Higher-end routers have multiple internal connections, so servers, for example, can be on segments by themselves for better performance. Eight internal Gigabit Ethernet plugs are better than four 100Mbps ports.
On the Internet side, multiple incoming Internet access ports mean you can connect to multiple Internet service providers. When one goes down (or starts limping because of a traffic overload), the other can take up the slack. Some routers can pool the two Net-access ports together to increase your bandwidth, or you may prefer a model that immediately fails over from one provider to another after a failure or drastic reduction in access speed. Either way, network access is no longer dependent on a single Internet access provider.
“Out of sight, out of mind” is not a good slogan for your Internet router. “Certified A-OK” means your network is reliable and secure.