How to: Choosing the right SMB switches and routers

Your guide to choosing the right networking switches and routers for your small or medium business

It isn’t just enterprise and campus networks dealing with an exponential growth in traffic: Small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) face similar challenges but are forced to tackle IT problems with fewer resources and much tighter budgets.

To accommodate this massive growth in network traffic, SMBs need to ensure their networks are equipped to meet future demand. A fully operational network is reliant on two pieces of equipment — switches and routers.

Therefore, devising the right switching and routing strategy, which includes a cost effective procurement plan, is critical.

The good news is that SMBs can now purchase gear with enterprise class features at a fraction of the price organisations were paying just a few years ago.

With prices falling, SMB spending is rising, according to research firm Gartner. Today the SMB market accounts for 44 per cent of total IT spending worldwide. This year (2011) SMB spending is set to reach $US860 billion. By 2014, SMB spending will top the $US1 trillion mark.

For a switching and routing strategy to be successful, organisations need to have a basic understanding of their network. This includes an understanding of traffic patterns, areas of growth, as well as knowing what applications and devices the network needs to support.

Gartner analyst, Jack Stackhouse, said businesses need to understand network traffic patterns and how traffic is expected to grow to determine what level of resiliency is required for servers and hosts. “Management tools are also critical because knowing the health of your network is impossible without efficient control systems in place,” he said.

Then there are the strategic purchasing decisions about whether to buy equipment from a single vendor or to buy best-of-breed.

In a multi-vendor environment, Stackhouse said the potential exists for interoperability problems. He said this occurs even when vendors claim they have implemented open standards.

“While claiming to support standards, vendors often add proprietary extensions in an attempt to provide additional value," Stackhouse said. “Because these extensions are proprietary they will prevent interoperability between different vendors’ hardware.”

Despite this, there are some benefits that can be derived from a mixed environment. These benefits include lower acquisition costs and the injection of competition into the procurement process.

“But trying to mix products from different vendors in the same layer is not a good practice,” Stackhouse said. “Mixing vendor hardware in a layer could induce network management headaches and configuration errors due to differences in vendor tools and functionality.

“There are still a lot of vendors out there with proprietary solutions that are not based on industry standards – they should be avoided.”

Some organisations may choose a “strategic vendor” as their key supplier. However, before doing this an organisation also needs to consider the installed equipment base because networks often consist of point technology solutions. For example, one vendor for Ethernet switches, another for routers and so on. Many of these proprietary solutions require equipment that supports certain technologies and standards. “If the installed base of equipment does not support the combined switching/routing architecture’s prerequisites, the wholesale swap-out of equipment may be necessary,” Stackhouse added.

When it comes to product selection it is worth checking how many vendors are supporting a particular technology to ensure there is a long-term roadmap.

Next: Purchasing Tips and Understanding Your Network

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