Branch routers continue to evolve, adding more and more functionality. Here's how to make sense of this growing networking hardware category.
Earlier in the year, we covered Enterprise WAN routers. Their functions might include aggregating a number of branch sites, and interconnecting large locations that are near each other geographically and have major bandwidth requirements. They can also be utilized for termination of high-throughput links.
Now it's time to study their little cousins -- the branch routers. They connect local offices and smaller campuses with the head office.
Shin Umeda, an analyst with Dell'Oro Group, said that branch routers have evolved over time. While their prime function is to connect to the network locally for voice, data or both -- as well as acting as a gateway to the WAN for transmissions to/from HQ -- they have gradually assumed more and more functionality. Cisco, in particular, has had a habit of adding functionality to these devices. This includes such features as security, LAN switching, and service capabilities related to Quality of Service (QoS). With QoS, for instance, the router might be set up to give higher priority to voice traffic as it suffers more from latency compared to an email application which may be more tolerant of a slight slowdown in service quality. WAN optimization/WAN acceleration can also be employed on routers at both ends of the line. This has the advantage of accelerating a transaction-based application, for instance, that may be deemed mission critical.
"It may be called a branch router, but it has become an all purpose networking device," said Umeda.
Users, therefore, have to decide whether to buy an all-in-one branch router, or discrete devices from various sources. Those choosing the former approach would commit to single vendor.
Dell'Oro grades Cisco as by far the dominant force with 87 percent market share. Next comes HP with 4 percent and then Juniper with 2 percent. However, second and third places vary significantly from region to region. HP competes best in Asia/China, helped by its 3Com acquisition. In EU, OneAccess is a major competitor. Juniper's share of the pie, said Umeda, tends to be spread all around.
Just how big is that pie? After its $3.5 billion peak in 2008, the total crashed to $2.5 billion in 2009. It is limping northward again, reaching $2.8 billion in 2010.
What should buyers be looking for? Dan Vargas, a CDW solution architect noted that branch routers can appear to be quite similar in function to enterprise WAN routers. However, they typically have lower throughput requirements than WAN devices. Additionally, branch office routers usually do not aggregate or bring together other sites, he said. Although it does not perform the aggregation function, the branch router should still have support for different physical interfaces.
"Another requirement is the ability to increase bandwidth speed in the future without hardware upgrades," said Vargas. "Depending on the size of a location, there may be a need for the devices to support resiliency within hardware and software updates, as well as requirements for secure site-to-site connectivity."
The branch router may also need the ability to support directly connected services such as Voice Gateways or Application Acceleration. There may also be a need to insert an Ethernet switching module for consolidated LAN functionality in a single device.
"The first thing to determine with branch office routers is the amount of bandwidth the device must be able to support," said Vargas. "Second, ensure that the device will support the required features within your operating system to establish connections, such as Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS), Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), and Virtual Private Networks (VPN)."
[Note: MPLS is a mechanism in high-end telecom networks which directs and carries data from one network node to the next using labels which act as virtual links between distant nodes. It can operate with packets using a variety of network protocols to carry data. Packet-forwarding decisions are made solely on the contents of this label, without the need to examine the whole packet. BGP is the protocol that backs the core routing decisions on the Internet]
Umeda pointed out another option for branch routers - don't bother to buy them and have them included in the contact with the service provider who will manage them. The service provider in this case provides the hardware and the service. You specify the bandwidth and the kind of service you desire and they give a device to address those needs.
"If you have 100 branches and you don't have internal networking expertise for each branch, the service provider sets up the contract to include managing the branches and giving so much bandwidth," said Umeda. "This is becoming commonplace for small and mid-sized organizations"