Purchasing a router for your small business network is not the same as purchasing one for your home. While consumer routers have improved tremendously over the years, they're not well-suited for the needs of small businesses, which have specific requirements. Odds are that the $39.99 router on sale at Best Buy isnt up to the task.
There are certain basic features that every small business router should support -- and that you should look for when buying a router for your small business network. These features increase network performance and help to ensure secure and efficient network operations. In this article, we explain the six essential router features you need. Here's what you need to know.
Gigabit Ethernet Switch
One of the most cost effective upgrades you can make to your small business network is to upgrade it to Gigabit Ethernet. Most consumer level routers come with an integrated 10/100 Fast Ethernet switch, capable of operating at a maximum speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps).
A router equipped with Gigabit Ethernet significantly increases the speed of data transfers over your small business network. The benefits of this will be most noticeable when transferring large files or in LAN environments connected to SMB servers or NAS devices. To achieve this dramatic performance boost, your computers must also be equipped with Gigabit Ethernet ports; and most new systems are.
Dual Band Wireless Network
Most consumer level routers support only a single wireless network. For this reason, wireless small business networks typically operate in mixed-mode; some computers have 802.11b or 802.11g access while others have high-speed 802.11n access. The problem with this setup is that just one computer accessing the network at an extremely reduced data rate can significantly diminish the performance of every client on the wireless network.
How is this possible? Think of it like this; youre driving your car on the expressway and thanks to EZ-Pass, you can sail right though the toll booths. However, if there are cars in front of you and each has to stop and pay the toll, then you have to stop too. Its the same with wireless devices. The faster device is still capable of the higher speed, but it's stuck in a queue behind the slower device.
Dual Band routers provide simultaneous support for a 2.4GHz wireless-N network, which is compatible with older 802.11b/g devices, and a separate 5GHz wireless-N network that supports the latest high-speed, 5GHz-compatible 802.11n devices; each with its own SSID and wireless security settings.
This individuality allows small businesses to continue to use all of their older systems, without diminishing the performance of their newest hardware. Plus, devices that operate on the 5GHz network will not be prone to the interference sometimes associated with cordless phones and microwave ovens that also operate on the older frequency,.
Its not uncommon for visiting guests or clients to request access to the companys wireless network in order to browse the Web or check email from their personal laptop. The problem is that in order to grant that request, you need to either configure their PC yourself or provide them with the network passkey, which presents a potential security risk.
The guest network feature lets you provide wireless network access to anyone, while still restricting access to your companys primary network. Isolating guest activity in this way adds an extra layer of security to your personal data and small business network traffic while simultaneously creating a convenient and welcoming atmosphere for your guests or clients.
Quality of Service (QoS)
Not all network traffic is the same, and having a router that can identify and prioritize traffic makes for a much more efficient network. Quality of Service (QoS) is an advanced feature that can prioritize Internet applications and minimize interruptions in service when your broadband connection is busy.
For instance, many companies use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection. A router with QoS control can differentiate between data packets used during a phone conversation and those being used to download a file.
This is important because when network traffic becomes congested, data packets get dropped. Dropped packets during a file download just means a slightly longer wait for the file. But dropped packets during a phone conversation results in poor voice quality or fragmented conversations (Can you hear me now?). Some routers support automatic QoS, while others have to be configured manually. In some cases you can configure data priority based on a specific application, Ethernet LAN Port, or even specific MAC addresses.
RADIUS Server Support
One of the shortcomings to using WEP, WPA or WPA2 to secure your wireless small business network is that these protocols use a passphrase-generated key to encrypt the wireless traffic traveling between your PC and the router. While this level of encryption might be adequate for most people, small businesses could add an additional layer of security to their wireless networks by incorporating a RADIUS server into their small business network environment.
The job of a RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial In User Service) server is to improve WLAN security by requiring users to authenticate to a server before establishing a connection to the wireless network. Not all routers support this feature, but those that do typically refer to it as Enterprise-class wireless security.
Maintaining your own RADIUS server might be too much of an undertaking for some, but there are a number of low-cost RADIUS services where the server and the authentication list it holds are remotely hosted.
Content Filtering /Site Blocking
One of the greatest challenges to a small business is to keep their employees focused and not visiting sites that could damage the company. For example, employees might inadvertently download virus infected software, or perhaps they might visit gambling or pornography websites.
A router with built-in content filtering lets you limit employee access to these sites. Routers are equipped with these today, some more advanced than others. Some content filters require a subscription service to automatically update the list of restricted sites and denies users access to them based on the category the site falls into. Other routers let you block access to either specific sites or you can block sites which contain specific Keywords. While not as sophisticated as the aforementioned subscription service, it is better than nothing.
While you might not need to block every site, being able to disable access to Facebook and Twitter alone could noticeably increase productivity. Should a user attempt to access a restricted site, they will receive a message from the router letting them know that it is not permitted and the network administrator will be automatically notified of the attempt.
Here are several small business routers that offer many, if not all, of the features we've discussed.
- D-Link Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router DIR-825
- Linksys E3000 High Performance Wireless-N Router
- Netgear Rangemax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (Model WNDR3700)
Anyone off these routers would be ideal for a small business network.
Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.
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