By MEGHAN FULLER
LAN interface routers have been instrumental in the proliferation of the Internet, and recent developments in digital subscriber line (xDSL), particularly asymmetric DSL (ADSL) in the last mile, and the presence of 100Base-T Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet at the edge of the network have significantly expanded the router's role.
LAN routers operate at the network layer (Layer 3) and are responsible for routing data and voice packets from an origin to a destination. They filter traffic between LANs, or they can be used for remote access, changing LAN packets into the data structures required for transport on the WAN. The router analyzes the Internet Protocol (IP) address of each transmitted packet and decides how to send that packet based on the most expedient route, using a table of available routes and conditions that it creates and continually updates based on existing traffic load, line costs, speed, etc.
Recently, the role of the router in the network has shifted; it has fast become an enabling technology. "One of the areas that we find most exciting is the ability to start to use the router as a way to deliver business-class services that are going to enable organizations of all sizes to participate in all sorts of solutions, whether they be e-business or distance learning, and so forth," says Mike Noonen, director of new markets and business development at Cisco Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA).
Noonen sites four emerging trends that he believes will soon become requirements in terms of router functionality. The first and perhaps most important function today's network managers are demanding of their LAN interface routers is security. The widespread deployment of xDSL services has enabled connections that are always on, which leaves users vulnerable to attack from others using the Internet.
James Mustarde, director of marketing communications at Allied Telesyn International (Sunnyvale, CA), agrees. "With the explosive growth of broadband provisioning, and people like you and me not wanting to sit at our PCs for 25 minutes to an hour just to download a patch from Microsoft, we need security," he says. "And we don't expect to pay for it. We really don't expect to pay for it. And that's the real pressure for vendors such as ourselves."
The demand for increased security has led to the formation of the Internet Protocol Security (IPSEC) Group, which is responsible for establishing standards that will enable interoperability among equipment from different vendors. These standards will also enable users to build networks that will secure the data in transit across the WAN as well as authenticate the user to prevent unauthorized access.
LAN routers with fire wall capabilities are also in demand; unlike the IPSEC standards that are concerned with protecting data across the WAN, LAN routers with fire wall features protect the local network against unauthorized access from outside the network.
Another function users are demanding from their LAN routers is the ability to differentiate between different classes of service to ensure that users pay for only the bandwidth necessary to handle the kind of traffic required at the performance level required. E-mail, which can travel at a fairly pedestrian speed, used to be a priority, but today's users also demand telephony and streaming- video capabilities-and they want them at much faster speeds. Routers now play a central role in determining which applications demand higher speeds and are time critical, and they will give these applications a higher priority across the network.
Network managers also demand the ability to deliver toll-quality voice over the same infrastructure as their data traffic. A converged and integrated communications system is both cost-effective and flexible, as it allows managers to operate myriad applications.
The fourth functionality requirement of the router is manageability and reliability. According to Noonen, the router becomes the point of entry in making sure the network's heartbeat extends all the way to the customer. Today's routers enable the service provider to do remote diagnostics and feature the ability to provide these services at a cost that isn't burdened by truck rolls and diagnostics that previously required an MIS manager onsite.
While service providers may be asking for increased security, differentiated classes of service, voice, and manageability, these features, in turn, enable e-commerce, distance learning, telecommuting, videoconferencing, and other applications that their customers are demanding. Says Noonen, "The router provides the right balance between what a customer wants and needs to do and what a service provider can offer from a support and management standpoint."
Mustarde points to the intelligence of the router consumer as another trend affecting the manufacturing process-a trend that should not be underestimated. The widespread availability of the Internet and rapidly falling prices have brought routers down to the commodity market; many individual users working from home now have routers instead of a modem or a PC card. Asserts Mustarde, "The market is now ready to buy products like they buy ice cream. They know what it does, they know what they want from it, they know what price point they are prepared to pay, and it's not a question of, 'Oh, I might want to do this next week, or I might want to do that next month.' They will buy a fully featured product that does pretty much what they want it to do over a period of time."
The commoditization of the market and increased awareness of consumers has "turned the router business upside down," claims Mustarde, and this has affected the competitiveness of the market. While the low-end router is and has been dominated almost exclusively by Cisco, David Busey, product manager, routers, at Allied Telesyn, asserts that the market is "huge worldwide, and there's plenty of room for ourselves and a host of others."
The metric driving the industry is price versus performance. The quality or feature set of the router is fast becoming standard, which has led Mustarde to assert that, in many cases, it comes down to marketing. Adds Busey, "It's a very fickle industry....It's like people churning, moving from one cell provider to the other to get the next great deal. There are plenty of broadband provisioners out there, service providers, that people will change to. The mission really is to get in there with a product that offers such a tremendous value proposition that we accrue loyalty."
The consumer is clearly in the driver's seat. "Just because something is a hot button right now, like VoIP [voice over IP], doesn't mean it's what the customer really wants, or needs, for that matter," asserts Mustarde. "That's not to say that voice won't be a big product in the next five to 10 years, but corporate America has to adopt it lock, stock, and barrel before you'll see any significant adoption elsewhere," he adds.
The future of the LAN interface router market is somewhat difficult to predict, due in part to the fact that what is LAN and what is WAN in terms of hardware is becoming increasingly less distinct. Allied Telesyn is set to introduce a very-high-end Layer 3 switch, which the company claims is almost schizophrenic; it performs the functions of both a switch and a router. It can sit in the LAN and route traffic outside it, or it can be used to build comprehensive LANs off a port that is a wide-area connection. Asserts Mustarde, "The ability to build LANs and WANs from the same hardware is getting closer and closer. So if you ask this question next year, 'What's the LAN interface router business?' I'd say, "Um, yeah, well, it depends where you're talking about. Are you talking WAN interface switch or LAN interface router?'"
Busey agrees. "As the wide-area-network speeds increase, like ADSL, you're really looking at the Ethernet LAN being carried across the wide area," he concludes. "You're not going from a very-high-speed Ethernet LAN to a relatively low-speed WAN. You're going to a high-speed WAN, so you think, 'Well, OK, why can't we just run the Ethernet across the wide area network?', and that's where it's going really. You've got country-wide Ethernet connections running at 1 gig, so the distinction is blurring."