Nov 27 2007

Digi ConnectPort WAN

Connect to the Internet with an easy-to-install-and-configure Web-based interface.
John W. Ellis
Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA

The flexible Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA is the industry’s first commercial grade, third-generation wireless WAN router. It offers high-speed wireless connectivity for mobile or remote offices and standalone devices.

When I thought of all the uses of this device, it had me wondering why I haven’t been pining for it earlier. Essentially, anywhere you have a cellular high-speed Internet connection, you can have a dedicated Internet connection. Consider the following scenarios. How about a mobile claims center for an insurance company after a natural disaster or storm? Or real-time reporting on a remote resource, such as a group of oil wells or satellite dishes? Or as the connection point to provide meter readings at residences in Minnesota?

Such is the case at Minnesota Power, which provides electrical power to 141,000 customers in northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The Duluth-based power supplier recently deployed about 100 devices as part of its meter-reading system.

“We used to read meters for high-end customers via analog cell phones,” says Dan Gunderson, an electrical engineer at Minnesota Power. “This provided an option for replacing those and upgrading the metering point. We now do daily downloads of the data from the device.”

Gunderson says his company uses Digi’s VPN HSDPA device because it offers the ability to encrypt the data and other security features. “If we want to troubleshoot a problem, we dial into the end-point device and solve the problem remotely.”

End-User Advantages

The first thing to keep in mind with these devices is that they are not aircards for individual users; they are routers, and they come with a routerlike price tag. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to deploy these to traveling sales folks, which is what the aircards are for.

This Digi router connects your network to the Internet just like your current land­line router does. All it needs is that cell phone data signal on a wireless carrier network.

It also could serve as a backup Internet connection in remote offices or the company headquarters. You could get a second wired connection, but with this option, you don’t really need to.

For Minnesota Power, this was a key benefit, Gunderson says.

“A lot of our infrastructure does not have phone or land lines anywhere close to them, and the cost to put them into our facilities is high, so we almost always prefer wireless unless there are other facilities in place,” he says. “The competition for data costs between carriers keeps being pushed down, so we’ve found it competitive for meter reading in a way that wired communications cannot compete [with] in terms of cost for our usage.”

Digi supports several wireless carriers, including Sprint and Cingular. It supports Type 2 PC Cards, which are embedded inside the box to help prevent damage and theft. (PC Cards tend to stick out of their devices, making it easy to bend or break the part that sticks out.) These cards are replaceable and allow you to upgrade your service, extending the usable life of the router.

John W. Ellis
Photo: Jeff Frey
Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Power rolled out 100 WAN routers to carry metering data.

The speed of the service is pretty reasonable, too. In my tests, I achieved about 450 kilobits per second (one bar) to 700Kbps (three bars), up to 20 times a dial-up modem and about half of a standard T1 line, found in most business spaces. Latency, a problem with the earliest version of these devices, is no longer an issue: It’s just a shade under 300 milliseconds. That’s fast enough to allow for virtual private networks, meaning a secure connection between your mobile office and HQ is now possible. The Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA also uses the latest industry technologies such as Evolution Data-Optimized Rev A and General Packet Radio Service, for those interested in being on the leading edge.

Why It Works for IT

First and foremost: Digi is a leader in the area of remote management of network devices, having spent the last 10 to 12 years refining it. Digi’s ConnectWare enterprise management software would enable an enterprise IT department to upgrade the firmware to numerous devices at once.

ConnectWare also is fantastic for monitoring the devices. At a glance, you can see misbehaving devices: those that are being misused or attacked, causing latency issues or just simply down. Alarms can be set to notify the network team members of these issues so they can respond promptly.

Installation and configuration is a snap in four easy steps. One, check to make sure everything’s in the box. Two, connect the hardware, which is just attaching the antenna and an Ethernet cord to your internal network. Three, configure your cellular settings, and four, give it a spin on a client PC. I was up and running in less than five minutes.

The Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA has everything your mobile office needs. Of course, it acts as a router, keeping unwanted traffic outside your network. It provides basic TCP/IP services such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol service and Domain Name Service. It also can act as part of a site-to-site VPN network, using all the standard encryptions: IPsec, DES, 3DES and so on.


Although this router doesn’t need wires, it does need a cellular data connection. In very remote locations, such as those wonderful places you’ve discovered to take vacations because the boss can’t call you on your cell phone, there’s no signal, so the device isn’t readily useful. Those same locations might not have any wired high-speed Internet available, either.

You’re also going to have to be careful with the service fees from your carrier. Some of them have wised up and realized these devices aren’t just single-user aircards — they’re multiuser office connections. Even if you opt for the unlimited data plan, they might have a special plan just for multiuser devices like these.

Last, if you’re in a big building, the cellular signal may be affected. My cell phone and this device both worked rather well (two to three bars out of four).

CDW Price: $932.65

IT Takeaway

The Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA router provides Internet connectivity, TCP/IP network functions and VPN back to the home office. If you’re evaluating one, consider these points:

• The Digi ConnectPort, combined with an application delivery product such as Citrix Presentation Server, provides an instant office or emergency office.
• Obviously, with desktops and applications running back at the home office, the Internet connection is more important than usual, so you need to make sure your data plan is top notch.
• If you’re in a business where emergency or instant offices are necessary, springing for the best data plan available is just another cost of doing business.
Dr. Jeffrey Sheen is the lead enterprise analyst for Grange Mutual Casualty Company of Columbus, Ohio.