Setting up network connectivity for a small office or a remote site demands that you make a number of critical decisions so you arrive at the best configuration possible. The first task is to identify the requirements of the user(s) at the location. These requirements can then be used to determine which equipment features are best suited for the site. Three important questions to ask are:

  • How many users are at this location?
  • Is VPN access to the corporate LAN required?
  • Will there be someone on site with technical competency?

These questions can give you a general sense of the basic technology needs for the site and will help you in selecting the best service and equipment.

Internet service
Most small sites are excellent candidates for DSL or cable Internet service (where these broadband services are available), so I am going to focus on setting up a site using one of these forms of connectivity. When you are working in a business environment, whether you choose DSL or cable Internet, you will want to control the Internet service using a broadband router (this is separate from a cable or DSL modem).

Carrier availability
In markets where carriers now offer a business cable or DSL product, it is extremely important to fully verify availability of the service before you make irrecoverable plans. For example, if your site is located in leased office space, the building owners may have inconsistent arrangements with local telecommunications providers. A provider may even sell you a service for which the site isn’t ready.

This particular situation happened to me once. A well-known cable Internet provider had arranged to sell me its cable modem Internet product for a site, allocated an IP address on the Internet, ran a cable from the utility room of the building (shared for all tenants), and sent a cable modem and router. The provider then called three days before the service was to start and told me that it will not be possible to get service at the remote site’s address because the utility line did not have cable from the local city’s private conduit.

Just as important as verifying that your provider has the proposed connection available is considering the service offered. If you plan on using any security technologies, for example, verify with your provider that your proposed technologies will work.

For instance, if you plan to use certain VPN scenarios, it is important to make sure that you can verify with the provider that the connection will support, for example, IPSec connectivity with IKE key exchange. Some providers do not allow VPN over their networks—or they require that you purchase a special business or telecommuter Internet package.

Also, your equipment should be compliant with all of your proposed solutions. Some providers may provide a proxy address visible only to your equipment instead of a public Internet IP address. This may interfere with your VPN, remote access, or connections to other offices. You should coordinate these needs with the IT department of your corporate office and/or any other offices

VPN technologies can save traditional leased-line costs (such as Frame Relay) when connecting remote offices because a VPN can utilize virtually any Internet connection in order to connect to a remote LAN. For a remote site, a VPN configuration to the corporate LAN will be either site-to-site or client-server. If the remote site simply needs to access files and applications from the corporate LAN, a standard client-server VPN will work. If employees at the corporate LAN also need to access systems and data at the remote site, a site-to-site VPN should be deployed. This consideration is important to remember when selecting a router for the site’s Internet connection.

Selecting the router
The first step in choosing the right router is identifying the features that are required for the router. If the remote site will support more than 20 users, will require site-to-site VPN, and/or has a technically proficient user or IT pro on site, you may want to consider a more advanced router from Cisco Systems.

If the remote office has less than 10 users, only needs a client-server VPN connection, and does not have an uber-geek on-site, then you should probably consider a basic SOHO router from Cisco, Linksys, D-Link, or SMC.

Below are some of the features you may want to utilize in your broadband router:

Keep in mind that the more features a router has, the higher the cost and the greater the complexity of configuration and management.

One recommendation that I have is to select a router without a hub or switch built in, and to buy a hub or switch separately and plug the router into it, then connect other systems to the hub/switch as well. This aids in diagnosing networking problems. Sometimes you may simply have a hub/switch port that is bad, and if the hub/switch is built into the router, you can confuse that problem with an ISP connectivity issue.

Consider leasing from the ISP
Consider leasing the remote site router from the ISP (not all ISPs offer this). Leasing will drive the periodic cost of the service higher, but may be beneficial for a number of reasons. The provider will usually keep equipment up to date and will replace any faulty units (usually in a timely fashion). Another strong benefit is that you will generally have a first level of support for the router directly from the ISP.

Of course, if you plan on supporting many sites over various regions with different providers, this may mean that you will have different equipment at each site, which can become a challenge if you want to share configurations and administer unique connectivity issues via remote access and/or VPN.

Leasing a router from your provider can also create a few other drawbacks. There are some security concerns with vendor-provided equipment, since there are potential default passwords and limited device specifications. You may be an easier mark for to who are aware of the type of devices in use by members of your ISP.

Recent market developments
In March, Cisco announced plans to acquire Linksys. This is big news in the industry of small office connectivity, telecommuters, and remote site management. The acquisition may evolve the product offering landscape of the small business router. See this article for more information.

Make the call
Selecting broadband routers for small offices can be a challenging task, especially if you have to manage various connection types and providers. Thoughtful planning and a careful assessment of site requirements can make the process much smoother.