Cutting costs: Do we need branch routers anymore?

Recent wireless-centric remote networking announcements imply that the corporate LAN experience can simply be “extended” into enterprise branch offices without the need for IP routing. Such a setup is possible, particularly for single-person offices. But it’s not likely to become the de facto configuration for all enterprise branch offices.

Aruba Networks announced its wired and wireless “branch-in-a-box” Virtual Branch Network (VBN) products shortly before the Interop trade show in Las Vegas, where Motorola rolled out its Wireless Enterprise Branch Office Solution and Cisco announced OfficeExtend as part of its Collaboration in Motion portfolio.

These and other Wi-Fi-centric “plug-and-play” products promise to automatically replicate corporate LAN services, such as policies and security credentials, to branches with no need for IT intervention, while allowing the remote user’s Wi-Fi or wired LAN experience to mimic that of users connected at headquarters.

Mike Tennefoss , Aruba’s head of strategic marketing, has gone so far as to say that Aruba VBN products are taking on Cisco’s popular branch-office Integrated Services Router (ISR), which bundles multiple Layer 2 and Layer 3 wired and wireless network functions in a single box.

Yet Aruba’s $99 and $395 wired and wireless Remote Access Point (RAP) products, now shipping, don’t support routing. Still, Tennefoss says, “Most of our VBN customers to date have dropped ISRs in favor of RAPs because they didn’t need the routing function in their branch offices.”

The ability to adopt router-less networking isn’t a given. It matters whether a single link to the public Internet serves as a site’s WAN connection or whether you are using a business-class WAN service, such as an MPLS VPN service, with a choice of WAN destinations and paths. Also, some WAN carriers simply mandate that routers be used to terminate circuits.

“[Aruba is] calling a sophisticated AP with minimal WAN intelligence a ‘branch office in a box.’ That’s a travesty,” says Joel Conover, senior manager, network systems at Cisco.

Cisco’s new OfficeExtend works similarly to the RAP, albeit behind a Cisco 800 Series ISR for WAN routing.

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