What separates business routers from consumer routers?

Small-business owners shopping for a new router should avoid the flashy new 802.11ac models. Here's why.

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  • Virtual networks (VLANs): Known as guest networks on consumer routers, VLANs can perform the same function on a business-class router. But you can also set up other VLANs to segregate traffic on your network, so that sensitive data from one department--human resources, for instance--stays contained within that department's own network. An entry-level business-class router is capable of supporting several virtual networks, while a high-end model can support a dozen or more.
  • IPv6 support: IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) is replacing IPv4 as the protocol for directing Internet traffic. IPv4 uses 32 bits to define an IP address, which limits the number of addresses that can be created--and that limit has almost been reached. Since IPv6 uses 128 bits to define an IP address, it can create a much larger pool of addresses. Though many new consumer routers support IPv6, it's a crucial requirement for a business-class router.
  • DMZ port: If you have a computer that needs direct access to the Internet--an email or Web server, for instance--look for a router with a dedicated DMZ port. This feature will isolate that computer from the rest of your network on a dedicated subnetwork, so that if the system becomes compromised, the intruder won't be able to gain access to the computers on your primary network.
  • Content filtering: This feature is the equivalent of the parental controls in a consumer router. You can block access to certain Internet content by using keywords or blacklists (prohibited URLs), or by allowing clients to access only permitted sites through a whitelist.
  • Wireless Distribution System (WDS): This protocol allows a wireless signal to be repeated by up to four repeaters in order to extend the network's range. It's increasingly common on consumer routers, too.

Which Class of Router Suits Your Business's Needs?

In this overview, I haven't covered every single feature that distinguishes business-class routers from their consumer cousins, but I have hit the high points. If you're still wondering which type is right for you, consider these final tips.

If you want the best security features, if you have many employees who require frequent remote access to your network, if you run your own email, Web, or RADIUS server, or if you need to set up advanced VLANs, you should look long and hard at a business-class router. If you need load balancing or failover redundancy, you should be looking at the higher-end business models.

You can probably get by with a consumer router if you have just a few employees (who don't require VPN access), if you don't need sophisticated VLANs, if you don't operate your own Web, email, or other type of server that needs to be hosted in a DMZ, and if you don't plan to operate a RADIUS server. But when you compare prices, you might be surprised to discover that a consumer model won't necessarily save you money.

This story, "What separates business routers from consumer routers?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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