December 27, 2000, 9:25 AM — The idea that Cisco's products are "hardware based" when compared to the two software-based routers reviewed here is a little misleading. Cisco's routers contain a power supply, internal bus, memory (main), storage (flash), a processor and an operating system -- just like any PC. They also have specialized network cards (contained in "modules") capable of handling just about every connection imaginable. In short, Cisco's hardware is nothing more than a specialized computer with modular plug-ins. The major difference is that Cisco's operating system (they call it an "IOS") includes the routing software, whereas the softrouter products we reviewed operate on the Windows family of operating systems. As a result, compatibility problems between the various subsystems of a Cisco router are all but nonexistent. Here are some other comparisons:
COST: Cisco routers will run the small to midsize organization anywhere between $300 and $6,000, depending upon the number of and throughput support of subnets, the type and speed of the uplink, the security options and whether you need voice support. Let's take one of the more common routers in use today -- the Cisco 4500-M. Its throughput capabilities are similar to the systems we tested. The 4500-M supports one 155M bit/sec ATM OC-3 Module, two T-1 ports supporting up to 2.048M bit/sec and up to 16 128K bit/sec low-speed ports. An 800-MHz PC can handle this much bandwidth, which is hardly surprising. Although the 4500-M's components are optimized to do just one thing -- route -- its Reduced Instruction Set Computing processor is only 100 MHz, and its main memory tops out at 32M bytes. If you compare the cost difference for the memory alone, 256M bytes of PC-133 memory for high-end Pentium III's cost just $100, less than one-twentieth the cost per megabyte for that used in the Cisco router.
However, cost isn't everything, and appearances can be deceiving. The 4500-M has a lot of advantages over a comparably equipped software/PC product, including more built-in LAN and WAN protocols, optimized WAN services, and the ability to centrally install and manage your internetworking infrastructure. Besides -- you'll gain a greater uptime rating with a Cisco or other mainstream router product than you will with one that runs as an application or a service on Windows. It still costs $2,000 more than either of the softrouters (including the server hardware) we reviewed, and that doesn't include hiring the services of a Cisco-certified installer. Before making a decision, first consider the target market.