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Archive for the ‘Tips and Tricks’ Category

Routers and Switches 101 – Part 1

April 1st, 2012 Comments off

A router, in simple terms, is a device that forwards data between computer networks. You are probably most familiar with routers that connect a local area network to an internet service provider’s network and through that, the Internet.  Unlike routers designed for home use, routers for business networks are often required to support many users (including guests); and to make sure company data is locked down to prevent access by unauthorized users or even hackers.

If your network consists of only a few computers, network printers or Wi-Fi devices,  a simple small-business router should be sufficient.  They usually provide a minimum number of ethernet ports for wired connection computers and other devices on your network.  Optional Wi-Fi capabilities are often available on these models.  However, if you need to support more than a few computers and devices on your network, or if security is crucial to your operations, or you need to provide remote access to your network, a more sophisticated router is required.

The two most common business routers are the VPN (Virtual Private Network) router and the UTM (Unified Threat Management) gateway.  Both types of routers serve as your internet gateway and usually come with integrated firewalls.  The VPN router contains a server dedicated to remote user access, and sometimes offers advanced features such as VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network) support and multiple SSIDs (Service Set Identifiers) for wireless networks.  The UTM routers, in addition to providing a VPN server, typically also include virus and malware protection, content filtering, spam filtration functions, and network intrusion detection and prevention.  UTM routers are usually ethernet only, requiring separate access points for Wi-Fi connectivity.

The additional security features of a UTM router usually require monthly or yearly subscription fees. Virus and malware protection on each user workstation is still necessary because the routers can’t monitor local behavior on PCs or inspect encrypted data traffic.  If you have a server or another device that needs direct access to the Internet, some routers have a DMZ  (Demilitarized Zone) port to isolate the rest of your network from direct internet access. QoS (Quality of Service) support lets you prioritize network traffic, which is an important consideration on networks offering guest WiFi access.

If you require more ethernet ports than what a router, gateway, or firewall device will provide, an additional ethernet switch is required. An ethernet switch is a smart device that increases the amount of ports you have, similar in concept to a USB hub or even a cable tv splitter. As with routers, switches are also with or without advanced features and configuration options.  Unmanaged switches are the simplest, not requiring any configuration but also lacking advanced features.  They are best for small and uncomplicated networks. Smart or managed switches allow configuration of individual ports, supporting features such as VLANs, bandwidth control, user authentication, and SNMP (simple network management protocol), and are suitable for most small to midsize businesses.  PoE (power over internet) allows power required for certain connected devices such as wireless access points and VoIP telephones to be transmitted over ethernet cables. PoE can save the time and money necessary to place these devices near existing electrical outlets or to install new ones.

In our next article we will be covering some of the above “alphabet soup” topics in greater detail, including WiFi issues, VPN configurations, VLAN support, and others.  Please contact Small Business Technology Solutions to recommend the proper routers and switches to achieve your business IT goals and make sure your network is designed and configured for maximum speed and reliability.