Linksys Connects, Protects Branch Users

SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - Perhaps the biggest challenge in supporting a branch office is finding a manageable way to offer it the same networking services that your headquarters enjoy. To set up a LAN with full Internet access and a firewall requires a complicated mix of hardware and software. The cost of installing and managing these systems is unreasonable for a remote office of 10 or fewer people. Linksys Group Inc., a brand synonymous with affordable networking, steps up to this challenge with its EtherFast Cable/DSL Router, a tool that provides remote connectivity at a knockout price.

Aside from NICs (network interface cards) in the clients, the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router is the only piece of hardware you need to set up a LAN over a 10/100Mbps switch, give all users access to the Internet, and protect them behind a full-featured firewall -- all for a list price of less than $200. The affordability and simplicity of this system earns it a score of Very Good.

Similar NAT (Network Address Translation) routers often have fewer features and can cost as much as five times more, whereas software solutions such as WinGate or Internet Connection Sharing (found in Windows 98 Second Edition and Windows 2000) require a dedicated computer for general Internet access. Using a dedicated machine requires buying a separate switch and firewall, each of which can cost as much as or more than the entire Linksys product.

The EtherFast Router is a single piece of hardware that requires little or no configuration. You plug in the WAN from either your cable or DSL modem and the router assumes the IP address provided by your ISP. It then acts as a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server, assigning internal IP addresses to all the machines plugged in to one of the five ports. The fifth port doubles as an uplink, allowing support for 253 clients.

Because the router was ready to go, all I had to do was hook up the connection from a cable modem to start the WAN and plug in each of the clients. If you have a DSL connection, you'll need to tell the router what your assigned IP address is, and that's it. After I booted each of the devices, Windows recognized each machine as part of a peer-to-peer LAN and each machine had access to the Internet. Most important, each machine was hidden behind the firewall.

The router comes with built-in networking management Web pages that offer a wide range of security and networking features. I was able to set up the Subnet Mask, Default Gateway, and DNS IP addresses in seconds.

I liked what Linksys calls its advanced features, such as its capability to filter specific IP addresses; its dynamic routing feature, which automatically adjusts to physical changes in the network; and its DMZ Host feature, which grants any one of the machines exposure to the outside world for direct, two-way Internet applications such as conferencing.

I especially appreciated the advanced forwarding feature, which allowed me to forward incoming requests for specific services -- such as FTP or HTTP -- to any machine on the LAN, without the requester's knowledge. For example, I told the router to forward any requests for FTP (typically port 21) to the machine I set up as an FTP server. When I FTP-ed in to the router from the Internet, the router recognized the port 21 request and sent it to the machine behind the firewall.

Unfortunately, Linksys does not provide telephone or online support for any of these advanced features, nor does it support non-Windows operating systems.

Although all the features worked for me and other operating systems can be used with the router, the company is not willing to field phone calls should trouble arise in these situations.

The EtherFast Cable/DSL Router provides all the network services most corporations need for a branch office at an affordable price. If you need networking services for a small group of people working outside the corporate fold, I recommend looking at the EtherFast Cable/DSL Router.

Steve Jefferson is a former editor in the InfoWorld Test Center. He has been writing about technology for seven years.

THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD

EtherFast Cable/DSL Router

Business Case: The EtherFast Cable/DSL Router answers all your remote office networking needs in one low-priced package, doing a job that has traditionally required an expensive and complex combination of hardware and software.

Technology Case: The small-footprint EtherFast Cable/DSL Router acts as a Network Address Translation router, a DHCP server, a 10/100Mbps switch, and a firewall. It can be managed by anyone with a telephone and a Web browser.

Pros:

+ Simple to set up and manage

+ Great firewall features

+ Inexpensive

+ Turns one purchased IP address into as many as 253Cons:

- Lack of support for included "advanced features" and non-Windows OSCost: $199Platform(s): Windows 95/98; Windows NT/2000Linksys, Irvine, Calif., (949) 261-1288, www.linksys.com

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