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By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted January 17, 2001
by David Schloss

James Vali knows the value of networking. President of Vali Music, an agency based in Norwood, N.J. that books music and entertainment for private and corporate functions, Vali spends almost all of his busy days dealing with clients, musicians, contractors, and event planners. Rarely seen without a phone to his ear and his eyes scanning the company's client database, Vali is constantly busy.

Until recently the company relied mostly on the telephone and the fax machine. Its single Internet dial-up account could be used by only one of the four full-time staff members at a time, and checking e-mail always required bumping someone off a computer.

A technology upgrade last year placed iMacs on everyone's desk, and connected the company via a 10-baseT Ethernet. Yet its connection to the Internet was left unchanged. Finally, at the urging of its technology consultant, the company installed a Flashcom Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection with a combination DSL modem/ router to give the entire staff a high-bandwidth connection to the Net.

With the router, Vali is able to provide lightning-fast 740k/sec SDSL (Synchronous Digital Subscriber Line) connectivity to the whole office while only paying for one account. "Now we're all familiar enough with the Internet that we can get directions to jobs on line, generate maps, and better plan our travel from one job to another," Vali says. "Before the DSL modem and router were installed, we had to spend a huge amount of time just getting directions. People couldn't do their jobs because they were so busy with the logistics. Now we've cut that time in half and requests can be funneled to the right person."

Broadband Boom
Well before their availability, DSL and cable connections were heavily advertised and appeared to promise a new era of high-speed broadband Internet access for the masses.

Large corporations were easily able to justify the multi-thousand-dollar cost of a dedicated connection, such as a T1 line, for providing broadband access to hundreds of workers at a time. Small businesses, however, found themselves in a sort of broadband No Man's Land, unable to afford a T1 or compete without it. Multiple dial-up accounts were a poor substitute, requiring numerous phone lines and modems.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) realized that there was a tremendous opportunity to fill the wide gap between costly T1 service and cumbersome dial-up accounts with DSL and cable connections.

Today, a small business can outfit an entire office with a high bandwidth connection for the cost of a single dial-up connection. DSL's various flavors can support download speeds of up to 8Mb/sec (five times faster than T1) and cable offers similar performance.

Bringing this high-speed connection to a group of users isn't quite as simple as ordering service from the local provider. In order to share a single dedicated connection with all the users at a facility, it's necessary to install a router, a simple piece of hardware (or sometimes software) that routes information from the cable or DSL modem to the users sharing the connection.

What Routers Do
A single broadband Internet connection can carry a wealth of data. A router allows you to share that high-speed connection among multiple users. It acts much like a post office. It collects all the requests users make for data and then delivers the information to the right location.

In order for the router to deliver the data, each client or computer sharing the connection needs an IP address, a number that identifies all devices connected to the Internet. Most routers and other types of server appliances support Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. DHCP is a networking technology that automatically assigns IP addresses to networked devices without having to manually enter the IP address on each device, or worrying about changing IP addresses as computers move around a network. It greatly simplifies the job of a network administrator by eliminating the need to track and account for every IP address.

A router can share the single IP address for your cable or DSL connection provided by the ISP among all of the internal client IP addresses. But how do you hide those internal clients from users outside the network? The answer is in another technology called Network Address Translation. NAT hides the internal IP addresses of your network behind the single IP address assigned by the ISP. If data is requested over the Internet from an internal device, the router changes the requested address to that of the external IP address. This adds an extra layer of security. NAT also prevents outside attempts to connect to devices on the network. For additional network security and protection against hackers a firewall is often necessary.

While routers once cost thousands of dollars (part of the high costs associated with T1 connections), small-office routers now cost less than $200. Their ease of installation and almost complete lack of administration requirements make them one of the best investments in a company's infrastructure.

These days, broadband routers come in two flavors: the first variety integrates the router with an Ethernet hub, while the second variety has the router built into the DSL or cable modem itself. A combination router/ hub acts as an Ethernet hub, providing anywhere from four to seven ports for connecting network devices, plus up-link ports for connecting one or two additional hubs, and a port to connect to the DSL or cable modem. The second variety acts as both a modem and a router, and as ports for connecting existing hubs.

Unlike a traditional dial-up modem, a DSL or cable modem is a highly-sophisticated piece of equipment that is able to handle the high-bandwidth communications tasks associated with a DSL or cable line. Manufacturers are taking advantage of this computing power by adding in DHCP, firewalls, remote access, and other features directly into the modem.

By integrating the functionality of a router into the modem an additional hardware purchase can sometimes be avoided, which saves both money and installation headaches. There are several disadvantages to this method, however. The first is that most high-bandwidth providers include a free or discounted modem as part of the installation package, and many ISPs won't support modems they didn't provide. Secondly, since high-bandwidth modems are connection-specific, a switch from one service type to another (say ADSL [Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line] to SDSL, or cable to DSL) would render the modem useless. Still, integrated modem/routers are worth looking into if their features exceed those of the ISP-supplied equipment. Just check with your ISP to make sure the modem is supported.

Both types of routers provide the same functionality, though the router/hub combinations tend to be more flexible because they can be used even if the broadband-connectivity method changes. Ideally either type will provide basic firewall protection, using NAT as well as DHCP for easy configuration of up to nearly 300 computers, and either a simple PC-based or Web-based administration interface.

Linksys EtherFast 4-Port
Rating 90

The Linksys Instant Broadband EtherFast 4-Port Cable/DSL Router is a sturdy unit that combines a router with a four-port switch. One-port and eight-port versions are also available. The four-port model can share Internet access between four clients, with two extra ports for connecting a DSL or cable modem and any additional hubs or switches.

Built-in NAT support enables the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router to act as a fully-functional firewall for up to 253 networked users. DHCP support means headache-free client setup across multiple platforms such as PCs, Macs, and Linux. Installing the device is so simple that users frequently call the support line to make sure they haven't missed anything.

Paul Julie, owner of Artistic Impressions, a photo-retouching and special-effects company based in Ontario, Canada, spent years using a 486 computer as a proxy server to provide connectivity to the computers on the network. Julie finally replaced it with a single Linksys Router. "I read the manual and just couldn't believe how easy it was to setup," he explains. "It's nearly transparent. If you're browsing the Internet or getting e-mail, you don't have to change your settings [like with a proxy server]." Julie jokes that setting up the Linksys took him 45 minutes but "would have taken 10 if I'd read the manual first."

Fortunately for those who do read manuals, Linksys provides excellent instructions with the router, including a well-illustrated "Getting Started" guide. Some configuration of the router and the client computers is required, but the clear and well-designed Web-based interface makes setup simple. Tabbed panels reveal both basic and advanced setup screens, though most users will only have to deal with the basic setup screen to enter the single IP address provided by the ISP.

Advanced configuration tabs reveal a host of settings for such functions as IP-address filtering, forwarding, dynamic routing, DMZ
(Demilitarized Zone) hosting, and more. A recent firmware upgrade even allows the router to function with providers (such as Verizon) that support PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet) connections for their broadband customers.

LEDs on the front panel clearly indicate the status of every port (even indicating if the port is functioning at 10 or 100 Mb/sec) and makes troubleshooting a breeze. If a mistake is made a reset button, recessed into the front of the device, will restore the default settings. And for those who might experience problems with the product, Linksys provides 24/7 support and a one-year warranty.

The advanced features built into this unit allow for blazingly fast connections across a network. "I can stream video without a problem," Julie says. "In fact, once I was streaming four machines with video all at once while running a couple of FTP [File Transfer Protocol] sessions to boot. I could never do this with my proxy server."

During testing the device worked flawlessly, though both the Linksys and the XRouter Pro (reviewed below) exhibit some compatibility glitches with Verizon's PPPoE connectivity (an issue still being worked out with Verizon technical support at press time). Multiple-hub configurations and simultaneous requests for data posed absolutely no problem for this unit and all network requests were properly routed.

Instant Broadband EtherFast Cable/DSL Router