Handy Routers Link Computers

After reviewing and testing a computer product, I often can't say that I would use it in my own small offfice/home office (SOHO). Not many products show clear innovation, are designed with the end-user in mind, or offer seamless compatibility with other products. However, the Linksys Instant Broadband Cable/DSL Router series is one of the few exceptions.

Linksys routers are small, about the size of a hardback novel, and let you use cable or DSL to connect multiple computers to one broadband connection. The router functions as a DHCP server, assigning IP addresses to your LAN, and using Network Address Translation (NAT) to map internal, private IP addresses to your one public IP address from your broadband provider (as I explained in Using Network Address Translation to Secure Your SOHO's Web Connection). Because the Linksys router is also a full-duplex 10/100 Ethernet switch—the unit combines both router and switch functions in one compact package—you can use the router to block your internal users from accessing the Internet. Linksys offers routers in several different configurations, including routers with one, two, four, and eight ports; routers with USB interfaces; 802.11b-based wireless Ethernet routers; and routers with Voice-over-IP (VoIP) capabilities.

I tried the BEFSR41 model, which comes with four ports for internal use and one WAN port for a cable modem connection. I connected one computer to the Ethernet switch, connected the cable modem patch cord to the WAN port on the router, and plugged the unit in. After booting my computer system, I verified that my computer correctly obtained a private IP address from the router. I was set up in 2 minutes, ready to use my browsers. (It’s important to note that you must power off everything before you install the router for your cable modem to renew another IP address that the Linksys can pick up.) Although the unit works fine out-of-the-box, you can easily tweak the settings. The router is flexible, supporting dynamic and static IP addresses, and Point-to-Point over Ethernet (PPPoE) for DSL users who use software (e.g., WinPoET from Wind River) to support their Internet connection. The unit comes with a secure firewall to ensure PC integrity. To configure the router, you must use a Web browser from any of your connected computers—you can't access the unit externally. To use the Web-based interface to set up the router's features, simply point your Web browser at the router’s internal IP address (by default, and enter the default administrative password. You can use most of the default functions displayed on the initial screen, as Figure 1 shows, but if you're using a DSL connection, you might need to do a little more upfront configuring.

To access the actual power of the product, click the Advanced tab, which brings up a screen with the following options, as Figure 2 shows:

  • Filters
  • Forwarding
  • Dynamic Routing
  • Static Routing
  • Demilitarized zone (DMZ) Host
  • Quality of Service (QoS), depending on the model of router and the firmware you install
  • MAC Addr, Clone, a utility for adjusting MAC addresses (which some ISPs use to verify that you have only one computer connected)

The Filters feature lets you designate certain IP addresses on your internal network that you want to restrict from accessing the Internet. You can also block certain ports to deny access to specific applications (e.g., Napster and AOL Instant Messenger). Port forwarding lets you direct traffic designated for one port to another computer system—useful if you’re running a mail or Web server on separate systems behind the firewall. Dynamic and static routing gives you control over how your outbound network traffic reaches its destination. A DMZ host function lets you configure one private IP address that your firewall doesn't restrict. Servers and PCs on the Internet can connect directly to your designated private IP address, which is useful if your SOHO has an all-in-one server appliance or other special applications. The QoS feature lets you prioritize traffic to and from certain ports; for example, port 2 can receive a dedicated 40 percent of the bandwidth while the other ports share the remaining 60 percent equally. MAC Address Cloning lets you retain the address of your existing network card, which some ISPs use to ensure that you've connected only one computer to your broadband modem. You don’t have to touch any of the settings under the seven tabbed areas unless you have a specific need to; the router works in its default configuration—I haven't found any security holes after using this router out-of-the-box for 5 months.

Each router in the Linksys series comes with 24 x 7 technical support and a 1-year warranty. You can buy the routers from Linksys, at most computer stores, and through many online merchants. Prices range from $100 to $300, which is an incredible deal for so much power in such a little device. If you need to connect multiple computers to the Internet, I recommend getting a Linksys router to ease your SOHO headaches.

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