In part 1 of this series, I introduced the idea of bridging the combo modem/router device you may have been using on your network to improve overall network performance. That combo device may have been acting as a modem, router, switch and Wi-Fi access point. Once you've bridged the combo device, it will only be a modem, which is good.
In this article, I'm going to discuss separating the routing and switching functions in your network. The value to separating these functions is you'll have dedicated devices designed to perform each function that can outperform a combo device trying to perform multiple functions at once.
Let's begin with the router. If your router is only going to route, what should you be looking for in a router? Routers can do a lot of different things, but you may not need them all. For example, you don't need Gigabit ports on your router if you follow my recommendations in this series of articles. You don't even need Wi-Fi on your router if you follow my recommendations.
Throughput and maximum simultaneous connections on your router are important. These measurements indicate how fast a router can pass traffic to/from the Internet and how many connections to the Internet it can handle simultaneously.
Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) determines the speed of your Internet connection. Your router can't make your Internet connection faster, but it can make it slower. Thus, measure your Internet speed to determine the minimum throughput you need. The best way to do this is connect a PC directly to the modem and run a speed test.
Your ISP may have a speed test tool or you can use one from the Internet. I often use speedtest.net or SpeakEasy's speed test. Run the test a couple times to get a good average reading. As you can see below, speedtest.net shows my Windstream DSL speed is 12.81 Mbps down and .65 Mbps up.
Look at our router chart and the check out the WAN to LAN Throughput ratings to see how different models measure up. If I were to use a NETGEAR RP614 at the bottom of the chart with only 7 Mbps of WAN to LAN throughput, I wouldn't be able to use my full 12 Mbps Internet connection. On the other hand, a router from the top of the chart with 800 Mbps throughput would be cool, but I'd never utilize more than 12 Mbps due to my DSL speed. Having more speed than you need isn't bad, but don't overspend for speed you can't use.
Maximum simultaneous connections reflect how many devices a router can support on a single network. The devices in our chart range from 34,925 simultaneous connections to 32 simultaneous connections. Clearly, a router that only supports 32 simultaneous connections is limited.
The router's firewall is a also key factor in router selection. The firewall should have multiple options to block external attacks and it should be easy to configure. At some point, you may need to create a firewall rule to permit specific traffic to your network. The easier and more flexible it is to configure the firewall, the better. I like to take a look at the device's manual to see how easy it will be to configure. Most device manuals are on the manufacturer's website.
You want reliability, especially on the router. If you have to reboot your router frequently, it's no good. Look at forums and on line retailers for comments. If multiple users report the same problem with a device, it's probably a good idea to stay away from it. Note, however, there's always someone who has a problem with nearly everything, so a few negative comments aren't always a bad sign.
Now that you’ve chosen your router, configure and install it so it is only routing. Most small network routers also have Wi-Fi. If so, disable the Wi-Fi. Disabling Wi-Fi is different on each router, but relatively simple. For example, to disable Wi-Fi on a Linksys WRT-310N, go to the Wireless menu and change the Network Mode to Disabled as circled in the screenshot below.
Lastly, do you have more than one router in your network? It is not uncommon to deploy a second router in a network to add ports without realizing that you could be degrading your network's performance. Connecting two routers back to back can create a performance problem called “double NAT,” meaning you have two devices performing Network Address Translation, i.e. the mechanism that shares your internet connection. This can add network delay and may restrict traffic flows.
It is possible to use a second router to add ports without adding double NAT. I described the process awhile back in this article here. However, if you're looking to improve overall network performance, I recommend disconnecting that second router and use a switch. A better use for your second router may be as a Wi-Fi access point, which I'll cover in part 3 of this series.
With the modem acting only as a modem and the router only as a router, the next step is to add a Gigabit (10/100/1000 Mbps) switch. By adding a Gigabit switch, all traffic to and from wired devices on your network will travel over a Gigabit network. This means local streaming and file transfers can occur as fast as your devices can send and receive data.
I recommend going with an eight port Gigabit switch. Sure, you can save a few bucks with a five port Fast Ethernet (10/100 Mbps) switch, but this series is about improving your network's performance. Gigabit is the way to go for LAN speed and eight ports are not too many. You're going to use two switch ports to connect your router and wireless device, leaving you with six ports for connect wired PCs, gaming and other end devices.
An eight port Gigabit switch with lifetime warranty, like the NETGEAR GS108 shown below, currently runs about $53 according to Pricegrabber.com. There are cheaper options, of course. But keep in mind that higher speed usually means higher operating temperature, which can mean shorter life. So spending a bit more for a longer warranty might save you in the long run. Of course, most warranties usually require you ship back the bad product before you get the replacement. So you might end up running out to get another switch anyway if yours dies.
More advanced switches can be added if you wish to further segment your network with VLANs, apply QoS at layer 2, or perform other advanced functionality. Whether you go with a more advanced switch or an unmanaged switch like the GS108, your router is now managing the traffic to and from the Internet and your switch is managing the wired traffic within your network.
At this point, you have a modem connecting to your ISP, a single Ethernet cable from the modem to the WAN port on the router, and a single Ethernet cable from a LAN port on the router to the switch. Each device is now performing a single key function. This is how a business designs a larger network, with dedicated devices for each element of the network.
In Part 3 of this series, I'll cover Wi-Fi and other options to optimally connect the rest of the devices throughout your network.