The routers and switches on a network have been described as the plumbing—hopefully just sitting behind the scenes working. These weren’t the items that got much attention like security breaches, growing your infrastructure, or backing up your storage. This makes sense, as you would just add a switch when you needed more ports; change a switch when you needed faster ports; or change the router when you upgraded your T1 (which seems to be disappearing quickly). There are a lot of advances in networking technology that allow us to use this gear as more than just plumbing. Routers and switches today are smarter and supporting more features.

Routers have come a long way since when they would just convert your T1s to Ethernet. It has been a number of years since these features came out, but the first phase beyond routing was adding security features and voice processing. This helped consolidate other systems in some smaller offices into the router. The trend continued by adding switch ports to the router so we could eliminate switches. Then something really cool happened—server modules were introduced that could reside in the routers. Now the sky was the limit! Along with virtualization, the ability to run a RAID 5, and all the memory capacity, we could put all sorts of services on the router: domain controllers, file, print, and even some applications. This allows us to retire even more devices in a small office and, in some cases, create a whole branch office in a single box. We can add some WAN acceleration as well so that the branch office has a healthy pipe to the main data center and it becomes a pretty neat setup for a remote office. And the feature that is becoming the new “must have” is adding application layer visibility to the router. Now, instead of just seeing/controlling port 80 traffic, you can see if it is streaming video, streaming audio or all sorts of applications that are specific to certain websites.

This ability to see and control traffic at the application layer is not only for routers. This is also making its way into data center switching. This can be as much a function of security as it is productivity. We need to be able to see traffic beyond the TCP port to get a better idea of who is doing what in our data center. It may be as harmless as some internal device malfunctioning and continuing to ask a server for info, or it could be a worm that has made its way into your network. It might just be a matter of being able to see how much traffic in the data center is dedicated to backup traffic. Data center switches are already a relatively new branch of switching, but a continuing trend is the consolidation of management points. The idea is to make many switches look like few switches. This is helpful for management of devices and also upgrades/patches.

The campus side of switching is also seeing a greater trend towards a consolidation of management points. It all started with stacking switches in a closet. But now there is the ability to connect many more switches together and logically have them appear as one switch. No more keeping track of which switches have had the upgrade and which haven’t! For many of the same reasons mentioned above, the ability to see and control traffic based on an application is also becoming more common with campus switching. In addition, switches now have security features which include encrypting all traffic moving across any wire and also as a device to control access based on device or credentials. On the green side, some switches now have the ability to force a reduction in power draw from their endpoint devices and the switch can even put itself in hibernation mode. All of this can save thousands of dollars in power costs. Finally, there is now the ability to house a wireless controller in some switches. The main benefit to this is being able to have consistent policy for wired and wireless users on one device.

As you can see, routers and switches have come a long way from where they were even five years ago. They are smarter and aren’t just the boring plumbing they had been in the past. All of this is designed to not only make managing the network easier, but also take the power that resides in the network devices and use that for further benefits. Kind of like Software Defined Networking (SDN)…oh no…I spoke too soon…until next time…

For a more detailed guide on routers & switches check out this CDW white paper