Enterprise Branch Router Buyer's Guide

Branch routers continue to evolve, adding more and more functionality. Here's how to make sense of this growing networking hardware category.

By Drew Robb | Posted Apr 20, 2011
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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.

Cisco Rules

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.

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