Route to the future

Convergence is forcing routers to become almost indistinguishable from switching and security appliances.

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By  Sathya Mithra Ashok Published  October 14, 2007

One could be forgiven for thinking that routers are one of the most inane components of an enterprise network infrastructure. Over the last two years though, developments in technology and the increased uptake of these routers in the Middle East has put new steam behind these traditional network elements.

Some of this excitement is around core routers with their high density and low power consumption features. However, much of it is concentrated towards the evolution of routers at the edge of the network.

It’s really no longer just about routers – it’s how and what you control through those routers.

"Just as there has been a transition at the bandwidth level - that is, going from 10/100 to the user laptop and 1Gbit between the edge and core, to 1Gbit to the user and 10Gbits between the edge and the core - so you see more traditional layer 3 features, functionality and elements being moved to the edge," says Maan Al-Shakarchi, senior systems engineer at Nortel in the region.

As Louis Helmbold, senior consultant with HP ProCurve Networking puts it: "It's really no longer just about routers - it's how and what you control through those routers."

Enterprise edge routers are certainly being transformed. Some of these changes occur on the basic hardware level with new ASIC chipsets but most of it is concerned with the features that are being added to router boxes.

An intelligence layer

"What you have seen in the last two years is the consolidation of functions onto the router platform. The router platform is taking on a lot more wider functions than the original idea of IP-based routing. Most of this has to do with intelligence," says Anwer Kotob, regional systems engineering manager for the Gulf and Pakistan at Cisco.

The biggest element of this is application intelligence where the platform is extended to understand application-based messages within single or multiple IP packets. Hence, it can take part at the application level instead of just the packet level, explains Kotob.

This in turn means that routers at the edge can be used to enforce business policies across information access and exchange across the entire network of the organisation. Routers can now, with application integration, provide better visibility of the flow of information making monitoring and metering functions easier and more effective.

"Routers today can also enable WAN and application optimisation by providing application level load balancing and process offloading, message caching and compression services. All the services that were earlier delivered at packet level are now possible at application and message level, with a larger impact to businesses. There are some by-products to this increased intelligence and one of them is the ability to add security, especially around authentication and authorisation at the message level," says Kotob.

Message inventory and quality of service (QoS) on the application level are other elements that are being added to routers. But without doubt, it is the additional security functions that are the highlight of new-age edge routers.

"The merging of switching and routing functions, especially at layer 3, has made it often indistinguishable. Now there is security as well and everything is blending together, moving away from the traditional circuit switch type environment to an Ethernet based environment. This makes the merger much easier for vendors and end users," says Yarob Sakhnini, technical manager at Foundry Networks in the region.

Integration of VPN functionality, firewalls, antivirus, antispam, content filtering and network access control (NAC) solutions are just some of the security elements that are being built into routers. Convergence is the name of the game, especially with voice and data becoming integrated onto single networks in more and more regional enterprises.

Most vendors have caught onto the game and there are at least a few models in each one's portfolio that offer most or all of the listed functionality. However, the direction it comes from and the way it is offered to the customer differ widely.

Juniper is one of the few vendors in the market which offers home-grown security options as part of the set of router products.

"Convergence is very important to a business. There is the concept of reduced cost, managing less equipment and a single platform that serves all the objectives that are to be gained by the business. But it is ultimately not about the number of boxes, it is about the coming together of services. From a technical point of view, if there is a homogenous platform and a homogenous OS, it works. Otherwise it is of no benefit to network managers," states Mohamad Abdul-Malak, regional director for MEA at Juniper Networks.

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