Routing and switching are crucial to your company's networking success
Because networking is a relatively young science, it borrows language from other disciplines. Many networking terms come from the realm of physical transportation—terms such as bridge, hub, port, routing, and switching.
That borrowing is apt. Just as the transportation revolution, and especially the advent of the railroad, was an economic catalyst of the Industrial Age, networks are the economic catalysts of the information age. And just as railroads need a solid infrastructure, so do networks. The foundation technologies of networks are routing and switching.
In the most basic sense, networking is the result of two pieces of electronic equipment that communicate data back and forth connected by a third piece of equipment that enables that communication. For example, a printer attached directly to a computer via a parallel or USB cable is not performing a networking function until the printer and computer are both attached to a switch or router.
The Internet provided the impetus for most companies to adopt a networking infrastructure. Even the smallest businesses need network-enabled Internet connections to send and receive e-mail, advertise and sell products and services online, interact with customers, and to connect with suppliers. Moving to a networked environment opens new possibilities, including online business applications and collaboration opportunities. Data security also becomes a central consideration with a network.
In the last few years, networking equipment manufacturers have put more router-like functionality into switches, and routers are taking on more features, especially relating to network security and quality of service (QoS). These features are often modules that plug into multiservice platforms. Also, some routers today have specific purposes. For example, an access router connects a local office into a corporate network backbone, while an Internet service provider (ISP) uses a core router to operate that backbone. In short, a wide range of devices can be called routers.
While switches and routers have evolved and the lines between them may seem blurred, one simple distinction remains: Switches reside within a local-area network (LAN), while routers are needed in a wide-area network (WAN) environment. It's analogous to an old-fashioned office phone: Switching is like dialing a four digit extension to reach someone in your building, while routing is like dialing 9 to get an outside line, and then dialing a seven- or ten-digit phone number.
Systems-Based Networking Solutions
Growing companies, especially those opening new offices, can opt for integrated foundation solutions that are secure, solid, and compatible with future technologies. Rather than purchasing separate products for individual functions such as routing, switching, security, and Internet gateways, companies can choose a "systems-based" solution that provides everything a business unit needs to fully and securely connect to the Internet and the company as a whole.
The systems-based networking approach has several goals:
Under a systems approach (sometimes called "intelligent networking"), the network moves from being a passive means of connectivity to an active, integrated part of the company's business process.
An intelligent networking-based approach to routing and switching lets all workers, even those at different sites, have the same access to business applications, Internet Protocol (IP) Communications, and videoconferencing as their colleagues at headquarters. Networking solutions for satellite offices tend to be modular in nature, allowing you to install just the features you need for a particular office. Modularity also enables you to upgrade equipment (rather than replace it altogether) when needs change or an office expands.
Networking Strategies for Simplified Management and Security
An added benefit of this systems-based approach is that technical staff at headquarters can centrally manage the network, which keeps staffing counts low while providing reliable service to employees in all locations.
Security is a critical consideration to most small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) when choosing a networking solution. By installing a complete solution and managing it centrally, you can protect valuable business data and guard against viruses, spyware, Internet attacks, and other security concerns.
Security solutions include firewalls (specialized routers running software that examines incoming data and protects against attacks) and virtual private networks (VPNs), which use encryption technology to securely connect two networks (the headquarters and a satellite office, for instance) over a public network, such as the Internet or a carrier network.
What to Watch For
Several trends in routing and switching are of particular interest to SMBs:
Bottom-Line Benefits of Intelligent Networking
Routing and switching technologies can have a positive impact on your company's financial outlook. The Net Impact Study 2003, sponsored by Cisco Systems and conducted by Momentum Research Group found that companies that combined sophisticated network infrastructures with network-based business applications, and were willing to reengineer their business practices to take best advantage of the technology and actively measure the results, reduced their annual operating costs by more than 20 percent. What's more, they measured a 20 to 25 percent increase in customer satisfaction.
Making informed purchase decisions about networking technologies can also save money in the long term. For example, the price difference between Layer 2 switches and multilayer switches is negligible, but the capabilities of multilayer switches are considerably greater. For example, if a company decides in the future that it wants to save on telecommunications costs by implementing IP Communications, a multilayer switch requires only a simple software upgrade to handle the increased demand. A Layer 2 switch, on the other hand, may need to be replaced.
Having a network foundation that can support advanced technologies such as IP Communications can deliver savings to SMBs in several areas:
Networking in the Real World
The following three companies have realized a variety of benefits as a result of establishing a solid network foundation:
GST Corporation provides transportation and logistics solutions to customers large and small. Its hallmark is the service GST's knowledgeable local agents can provide. In 2000, the company was spending $52,000 per month to provide data over a Frame Relay network to 19 offices. (Frame Relay is a type of WAN, usually leased from a telecommunications carrier.) The company unplugged its Frame Relay connection, installed Cisco multiservice access routers at remote offices, and securely connected everyone to headquarters over the public Internet using VPN.
Since then, GST has expanded to 380 employees in 34 branch offices and 30 home offices, spending just $57,000 per month to connect them. When GST hires local transportation experts, it simply ships them a VPN-enabled laptop and an IP phone, and they can completely and securely connect to headquarters over a home Internet connection.
Networking to Increase Efficiency
Hitchcock Automotive Resources is a group of five auto dealerships and a body shop, all located in Southern California. Until recently, each dealership ran its own server and LAN, independent of Hitchcock's headquarters. Now each dealership uses a Cisco switch for its LAN and a Cisco multiservice router to connect to the company's WAN, which has allowed the company to migrate its various business applications to a single high-performance server.
"This centralized server allows us to run the organization efficiently without duplication of personnel or equipment at each location," says Rich Morris, Hitchcock's vice president of information systems. For example, two people at the company headquarters now generate payroll for the almost 800 company employees.
Expanding Service Offerings
Routing and switching are even reaching truckers on the road, thanks to IdleAire Technologies Corporation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Through a “service module” on a long, flexible hose, IdleAire has delivered electric power, heating, and air conditioning to big rigs parked at truck stops since 2000. Soon after it began its service, IdleAire realized that the network it was building to provide customer support could also deliver new services for its trucker customers.
Now IdleAire service modules provide high-speed Internet access and IP phone service to 2,000 truck-parking spaces in the United States. The company (which has fewer than 200 employees but is growing rapidly) plans to deploy its services to 270,000 parking spaces nationwide and add video on demand service.
What To Do Next
Chances are good that you already have some networking technologies in place. The next step, then, is to determine whether you have the right foundation for your company's needs, both today and in the future.
What you plan to do with your network should drive your equipment purchase decisions. For example, if you intend to run IP telephony, you need to buy routing and switching equipment that can support it.
If you're not sure whether your network foundation can take you where you need to go, start by assessing your current equipment: