Enterprise WAN Router Buyer’s Guide

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The router market is an interesting space. It is split into two broad categories: enterprise Wide Area Network (WAN) routers and branch routers. This article focuses on the former category. Enterprise WAN routers are used to communicate to and from head office to branches. Sitting in the main data center, WAN routers are part of the network backbone, dealing with transaction and processing oriented traffic. As such, they need high bandwidth capacity.

“Enterprise WAN routers sit at the hub, while the branch offices are like the connecting spokes,” said Dell’Oro Group routers analyst, Shin Umeda.

While generally separate from the switches that connect user devices to the network, some modern switches have also taken on some routing functions. However, they remain largely separate. Switches connect users to the Local Area Network (LAN) while routers transmit data across the WAN.

Primary features

What are the main features that users should be looking for in an enterprise WAN router? Umeda said that the most important point is to match user bandwidth requirements to the device. Some WAN routers, after all, can be relatively small with a few interfaces. The simplest come with two connections — one to the WAN and one to the LAN. This might be good enough for a small organization, but limits performance and lacks flexibility. Larger routers, of course, have far more ports and can deal with a wider range of services that are attempting to connect to the WAN? Such services might include a low-speed electrical circuit like a T1 line, a Fiber Optics circuit connecting to a carrier network, or Ethernet up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE).

“Pay attention to the type of connectivity you require during the selection process,” said Umeda. “Most decent routers are highly configurable based on the type of ports you need.”

Connecting to the LAN side, though, is relatively straightforward. That typically requires Ethernet ports in the range of 100 Mb or 1 Gb.

Voice only, data only or both is a question that has to be answered. The days of data only networks appear to be dwindling, but not everyone has jumped onto the Voice over IP (VoIP) bandwagon. It would be wise to check with the CIO to determine if VoIP is on the horizon. If so, plan ahead. It doesn’t make any sense to buy a fresh set of data only networking products only to have to replace them a year later when the VoIP rollout commences.

Umeda calls attention to another factor in router selection: what kind of connection you have to the branch, which determines what features are needed in the WAN router. If many branches are present with slow connections, for instance, that influences the amount of bandwidth and type of WAN router that should be purchased. Take the case of an ATM-type financial transaction. This will probably need a high level of security via VPN capabilities. Not all WAN routers include such functionality. Further, if the WAN router connects to the public Internet, some kind of firewall and security features are a wise investment. Many routers fold these features into their routers for a little extra money.

As a rule of thumb, Umeda said to start with bandwidth. How much capacity do you need and how much can a specific router support? This determines how much you should pay. Huge expensive routers might give a tremendous amount of bandwidth but why buy them if you will never take advantage of it. Correct sizing, then, is key. Another decision is whether to opt for a single-vendor or multi-vendor set up.

“Some services work better when you utilize a single vendor at both ends, while with others there is no difference at all,” said Omeda.

Finally, the Dell’Oro analyst mentions management. Some organizations require a high level of centralized management of devices, while others have a more distributed infrastructure. The kind of IT organization in place can determine whether a more expensive WAN router is needed at head office (replete with state-of-the-art management functions) or if a less expensive router will suffice.

Vendor Battle

While Cisco remains the major force in enterprise WAN routers, its dominance is less than in other areas. Cisco leads the field with a 60 percent share in 2010 followed by Juniper Networks with 22 percent, Chinese company Huawei with12 percent and Brocade with 4 percent according to Dell’Oro. While Huawei isn’t that well known in North America, that will change over time. But for now, it mainly sells in China and even then primarily to service providers.

“We haven’t seen much shift in market share numbers over the past three years,” said Umeda.

However, the total size of the market has shrunk. It was $700 million each year from 2006 to 2008 and crashed to $400 million in 2009. This year it rebounded a little to half a billion. But Umeda doesn’t expect it to top its 2008 total any time soon.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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