Sep 09 2010

Which Is More Important for Your Network: Faster Internet Access or Internet Access Redundancy?

Boost speed and balance traffic with dual-WAN routers.

If you're having trouble achieving top Internet speeds and securing reliable redundancy, why not solve both issues with a dual-WAN router?

A dual-WAN router supports two broadband connections. Both connections can be active, so you can double your Internet access — connecting a DSL line from the phone company, for example, as well as providing cable broadband access. Some products offer ways to connect multiple broadband links at once, such as the SonicWall TZ200, which has five configurable ports, four of which can be used as WAN links. But most have two, and two’s a big improvement over one.

Oddly, not every router manufacturer includes dual-WAN support on their router lines, which is a shame. Consider the value of a dual-WAN router for a moment:  When your DSL disappears for half an hour (not that I’m speaking from experience), your network stays up. When some fool co-worker starts downloading a movie to his notebook, your network doesn't crawl. Instead of a total of 6 megabits per second or 15Mbps downstream bandwidth, you can at least double your bandwidth.

There are no real surprises in the cost. The routers with dual-WAN connections tend to be business-oriented, so they cost more than low-end routers, but only a few dollars more than their single-WAN siblings. You must purchase a second broadband connection from a separate Internet service provider, but for suburban offices and small business locations, this should only amount to about $50 more per month.

Some manufacturers make the sales pitch that their dual-WAN router will give you better performance for far less money than a dedicated data circuit, such as a T1. The performance part is dicey because data circuits are synchronous, have lower latency and offer far better uptime guarantees. However, dedicated circuits are at least twice (more likely four times) more expensive than two WAN connections from various ISPs in your area. And no one will know you’re not paying a high price for a “real business” data connection, rather than taking the low road and saving hundreds per month while getting five or 20 times more downstream bandwidth.

The dual-WAN routers have extra configuration options to help balance the traffic streams from the two ISPs. Data can move either in round-robin packets alternating between ISPs or in a configurable ratio between connections, or it can be routed based on either the address of the client inside your network or the destination IP address on the Internet. If you have Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones, or support remote users using encrypted connections, make sure your dual-WAN router has the flexibility necessary to set these parameters. Models from Check Point, D-Link and SonicWall certainly have the necessary management controls.

Modern dual-WAN routers include all sorts of security and firewall features. That’s to be expected in a modern router, and dual-WAN routers certainly provide plenty of security. Some seem more like firewalls with a bit of router added than vice versa. If you want to add advanced security features, you’ll pay a bit more, but your network will be well protected. Several manufacturers also offer wireless networking on their dual-WAN routers, so everything you need from Internet access to wireless to security can be included in one small box.

Besides the brands mentioned above, check out Cisco Systems, SMC Networks and Trendnet dual-WAN router models.

It’s puzzling why some router manufacturers don’t offer dual-WAN routers. More confusing is why every small business today doesn't have at least two ISPs providing Internet access. After all, if you don’t have Internet access today, you might as well go home. Better to keep people online, and working, with a dual-WAN router.

James E. Gaskin writes books, articles and jokes about technology from his Dallas-area home office. He also consults for those who don't read his books and articles.