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Evolution of the router

Rabih Dabboussi, Director, System Engineering Sales, SVP Emerging East at Cisco.More and more applications, such as firewalls, VPN concentration, voice gateways and video monitoring, are being piled onto routers. Cisco's Integrated Services Router (ISR), for example, even boasts an optional application server blade for running scores of Linux and open source packages.

When IT organizations deploy new routers and switches they typically want those devices to have a very long life cycle. The challenge, however, is making sure that these devices can support not only today's requirements and the ones that are likely to be real in the near term, but also the requirements that will not manifest themselves for several years.

“For many years, routing elements within the network have been evolving to provide much more than merely IP connectivity between disparate networks, Intranet, or Internet management of data streams. The core routing functionality is now much more than this simple application,” says Rabih Dabboussi, Director, System Engineering Sales, SVP Emerging East at Cisco.

Mahmoud El-Ali, GM of 3Com Middle East, adds that the router remains the key interface between the enterprise and the outside world. “It is still the device that sits between the WAN and the local network, but more and more applications such as firewalls, VPN concentration, application monitoring and acceleration, unified communications and video monitoring are being added, making a router more of a service-enabling device.”

Future proofing your router purchases

It is impossible to predict with certainty which new requirements and technologies will impact IT organizations in the future. It is, however, possible to state with certainty that there will be new requirements and new technologies and that the organization's routing infrastructure will have to support those requirements and technologies.

“Network traffic continues to evolve and diversify. There is an increased reliance on collaborative applications across a globally distributed user base which requires sharing data across the WAN. These are often multimedia applications, including video conferencing and video streaming, and thus require extremely high bandwidth and low latency,” says Tarek Abbas, Sr. Systems Engineering Manager- Enterprise, Juniper Networks.

One trend that is impacting virtually all IT organizations is that the number of different Web-based applications traversing the enterprise network is growing rapidly because of the webification of enterprise applications such as ERP and CRM, plus the utilisation of emerging Web-based application architectures such as SOA, SaaS, cloud computing and mashups. This trend increases the importance of identifying which Web applications are business critical so that the IT organization can provide preferential treatment to these applications vs. the more mundane or recreational applications that are also Web-based; for example, Internet radio. Routers that can base QoS scheduling and forwarding behavior on deep-packet inspection (DPI) will be able to parse application headers allowing all critical business applications, including VoIP and videoconferencing, to receive preferential treatment and enabling recreational or unwanted application traffic to be either eliminated or rate limited.

We believe that implementing router-based QoS at key points of aggregation within the network may offer an attractive alternative to managing an end-to-end QoS scheme involving numerous client end systems. We believe this because the vast majority of IT organizations that we work with have already implemented QoS. However, because of the complexity that is associated with managing an end-to-end QoS scheme involving numerous client end systems, only a minority of them can effectively manage their QoS implementation.

IT organizations that are looking to future proof their router purchases should also insist that any router they purchase support IP Multicast. IP Multicast provides for the efficient use of WAN bandwidth by enabling the simultaneous delivery of content to large numbers of recipients dispersed throughout the network. Applications leveraging IP multicast include IPTV for corporate communications or distance learning, video conferencing, as well as the distribution of software, stock quotes, and news.

So where is all of this heading? Will the trend of hosting more and more applications on a router will change the complexion of the device and impact the performance?

“With the plethora of functions and capabilities required in the next generation routers in both enterprise and service provider environment, it is clear that the engineering limits of hardware and software capabilities will continue to be challenged by those requirements. The next-generation routing platform needs to be highly distributed, scalable, modular and redundant. As we see the second wave of the internet come through, routing platforms continue to evolve to keep up with the uptake of media rich applications, “ says Dabboussi.

For users, it is important to verify that performance is not adversely affected when a wide array of features is enabled, and rethink their approach to routing infrastructure in view of the emerging technologies. “Traditional routers operate at Layer 3, moving packets in and out of interfaces after altering the data slightly. A lot of the extra features added to routers these days do the same, but at different layers: session border controllers operate at Layer 5, application acceleration at Layer 4 and Layer 7, and firewall at many layers. This evolves the role of the router from a provider of simple connectivity to a fundamental contributor to enterprise performance and control,” sums up El -Ali.

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