In September we’ll be exhibiting at Channel Live 2017 to showcase our IoT ecosystem of connectivity, devices, solutions, and analytics. But where do smart routers fit in?
Now and then we hear someone talking about “the smart router”, “the managed router”, or “the connected router”—these are many ways of referring to exactly the same thing. But why would one apply these terms to a router or gateway? After all, from a business point of view, the typical customer site router has a pretty basic function—to forward IP packets. Routers should be seen and not heard. So why all the focus? In this post I’m going to have a look at what we actually mean by stating a router is smart, managed, or connected.
What’s missing from your networks?
Let’s take a look at your typical CPE (consumer premises equipment) at a branch office or remote site. That router’s fundamental role is to provide connectivity for the devices to the Internet or corporate network. Pop in a SIM card, configure the Wi-Fi and bingo, your site is online. Have more than one site? Easy—just repeat the config for as many sites as you have and as many routers, drop ‘em off to the courier and send out. At this point in time you can pat yourself on the back, because you’ve just rolled out a corporate network (feel free to drop in “MPLS”, “SD-WAN”, “fully managed” if you wish!). Time to collect billing, and happily move on to the next project!
However, there is something missing at this point. Your sites are fine, but you have no visibility of what your network is doing. If you have a near real-time, regularly updated usage feed (such as you would get from Pangea SIM cards) then you are happy in the knowledge that your routers are generating data and you know your sites are working. If you have no usage information, and only receive a monthly billing statement, then you are truly in the dark!
Let’s break down management
CPE’s come in a few flavours. To roughly categorise, we have the SoHo devices which are consumer routers with a few more features (e.g. the ability to hold a VPN or some extra firewalling), the enterprise devices which can do more VPN’s, firewalling, intrusion detection, and finally carrier grade hardware where the sky’s the limit on price! The feature set and price also increases almost exponentially once we throw in multiple SIM cards, bonding and load balancing into the mix.
What would be really nice for the network administrator would be the ability to look at their entire estate of routers, and see these all in one view, and perhaps right click on one to manage and change Wi-Fi settings, add a firewall rule, check the user’s traffic etc. This is typically referred to as having an NMS (Network Management System).
To have this NMS capability there are a number of methods and technologies that have been around for a while. Here are just a few:
SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) works via a server sending a query to the router, for example “what is the bandwidth through the WAN interface?”, and receiving a response, which is then loaded into the NMS in the form of data, or pretty graphs. This information is in real time. SNMP can also configure the router via pushing configuration to the router. SNMP has been around a long time and through a number of versions offering enhanced security.
This specification, also known as CWMP (CPE WAN Management Protocol) allows bi-directional querying and configuration of connected devices. These implementations are quite popular in consumer broadband environments, where thousands or millions of devices have to be managed. Variations also appear in cable TV boxes—usually noticed at 3am in the morning when the TV will pop up to say it is updating. These solutions are handy for pushing out new firmware and fixes to a large installed base. However generally they aren’t as responsive and feature rich as others.
Bespoke management software:
Most enterprise grade routers—such as the likes of Cradlepoint, Sierra Wireless, etc—all have their own management platforms, often based in the cloud. The advantage of these platforms is that they often use combination of the previous two technologies plus their own protocols to get the most out of the router, and in real time. Extra features the router may have, such as GPS location, enable locations of sites to be plotted on a map—handy when a worldview is required, or when the sites are mobile, such as on connected buses or trucks.
Let’s get this NMS running – volunteers, please!
So, if we have protocols and technology that has been around for decades to manage and monitor a corporate WAN, why aren’t more people doing it? The simple answer is, it’s too complicated! Deploying your own NMS, and up keeping it, is more effort than it’s worth. You will either have to be technically inclined or be willing to hire an engineer, get some server space, pay for the NMS platform or use an open source solution (such as Nagios), where you will have to maintain it yourself.
Homer’s Network Management System
Cloud management platforms take all this hassle away, as the router is already pre-configured to talk to and register on the platform—it’s quite easy to get a router online and managed.
Look at the big picture when calculating hardware cost
Enterprise routers with management do cost more than their basic non managed cousins. However the difference in cost, when viewed over a year or more, narrows significantly. Any time one has to spend half a day on a resource to travel to the site, diagnose, (or even worse, just push the “reset” button!), is another step towards narrowing the gap between the up front cost of a non managed router versus a managed router. Not to mention the ability to troubleshoot remotely in real time and avoid the dreaded hour on the phone clicking through a GUI and visualising remotely what is going on!
The analytics angle
How much data is done in office hours? Anyone watching Game of Thrones? Why is client X consuming a steady 20 Mbps of traffic day in, day out? All these statistics are easy to view and analyse using a cloud management platform. In the cases where CPE’s also provide customer Wi-Fi extra information can be gleaned about what types of devices are connecting, for how long, and what time of day.
Here are Pangea we offer a range of managed routers in addition to our line of SoHo and enterprise routers. Stop by stand 308 at Channel Live 2017 to talk about connected routers and all things IoT. You can also get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more and how moving to a managed solution will help you, your customer, and their end users!