Branch in a box for remote management

Looking to eliminate the hodgepodge of devices users have to manage in branch offices, many customers are turning to single, multi-function devices known as a "branch in a box" that perform branch-office network functions while being managed remotely.

Branch-in-a-box devices support a core range of tasks and can take the place of four or five devices in offices that may have no permanent IT staff, says Dan Golding, an analyst with the Burton Group who says he coined the name as a product category.

One box can perform in place of a WAN router, Ethernet switch, IP PABX, firewall and other devices, he says. It also can host security applications. Branch-in-a-box products are not to be confused with office-in-a-box gear, which includes print servers, storage, e-mail servers and other devices intended to support one-office businesses, but not meant to be managed centrally as part of a large corporate network with hundreds of branches, Golding says. Vendors in this category are Critical Software, EmergeCore Networks, Right Vision (acquired by Alcatel) and Linksys One.

A range of vendors make branch-in-a-box products, including 3Com, Adtran, Kentrox and NetDevices, a start-up focusing on this type of gear that is unique because it developed its platform specifically to deal with multiple branch-office functions rather than evolving from an existing device, he says. Cisco's branch-in-a-box ISR routers lead the way, Golding says, with more than 500 million units sold since they were introduced 15 months ago. It was Cisco's most successful product launch ever.

Nortel is the most recent industry giant jumping into this area with its $US99.5 million purchase last month of Tasman Networks, whose Converged Services Routers support routing, security, QoS and VoIP.

There is also speculation that Juniper is looking into creating its own branch-in-a-box device.

Cisco's ISR gear stands out not only for its popularity but also for its premium price. ISRs cost 30 to 40 percent more than most of the competitors' gear, Golding says. For instance, a Cisco 3825 costs $10,500 to $16,600, while a Tasman (Nortel) 3120 costs $6400 to $12,900. But for the lower price, customers also get fewer feature options. The Tasman box has no IP PABX support, while the Cisco 3825 supports Cisco's IP Call Manager Express for local call processing.

A strength of these devices is that they are modular, letting customers add features as they need them. For example, financial firm Close Motor Finance uses NetDevices SG equipment as a branch-office router at its disaster recovery site.

"It was never economically feasible to have a member of my IT team based in the branches," says Dave Coleman, head of IT for Close Motors. "So it is important that we have as few maintenance and configuration issues as possible."

Adequate branch staffing is becoming a more common problem, particularly for mid-sized companies.

The one factor nobody can be sure of is how long this gear can remain trouble-free -- an important characteristic for customers. "One thing about branch-in-a-box devices is they're designed to sit out in a branch for three, four, five years, preferably without somebody touching them," Golding says. "You'll have to put them out there for a few years and find out."

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