How To Choose A UTM Router

In my previous post, we looked at some SMB network issues that you may encounter. Now it's time to decide how to choose a UTM router that's right for your environment.

Identify Your Needs

On the surface, many UTM routers seem to cover the same bases. Once you dig a little deeper, you'll find that each has its strengths and weaknesses. If you don't have a good handle on the issues you need to resolve, it's hard to know if you made the right choice.

You can start by making a checklist of your needs. Obviously, you need a router. What other services are important to you?  Do you need to provide secure access to resources on your network for external users? Better add a good VPN to the list.

What about site-to-site connections for multiple locations? Will you want to use IPSec or some other technology?  Are those sites small branch offices or major hubs with a need for more robust services? Write it down so you have it as a point of comparison.

Do you know what traffic is on your network? Reporting may not be an exciting feature, but it's extremely useful. Don't forget about transaction logs for different kinds of traffic. When it comes time to trouble-shoot a problem, logs are your best friend.

Consider if you need features like high availability, load balancing, anti-spam, anti-virus filtering, intrusion protection, web filtering or application filtering. Some school sites like devices with specific Facebook controls so they can permit access to their own page, yet prevent some of the games or undesirable content available on Facebook.

These questions just scratch the surface, but they demonstrate the diversity of requirements for different Small & Medium Businesses. You may not care about Facebook services or VPN support while other features could be business critical for you. Make a list and start thinking about some what-if scenarios.

Consider your budget, too. Many of these services come in the form of a subscription. You may not need them right away, which can save on your initial cost. However, it's nice to know that you can plan for the future to grow into the services that you'll need later. Factor your grown planning into your purchase decision. UTM routers are much more expensive than consumer-grade routers, so you don't want to waste your initial investment on a product that can't grow with you.

Review The Market Players

Features are great, but every vendor has a nice list. How well do those features hold up in the real world? Start with some basic research. It's fine to look at reviews, but dig deeper. Do search queries for problems, too. Are people complaining about the router that you're investigating? Does it have known issues or problems?

Visit IT communities like SpiceWorks or others and find a forum for the router you're investigating.  Remember, these are places where people go when they have problems, but that doesn't mean the product is bad.  Are they asking questions about usability to learn, or are they ranting about problems with the product or its support team? A big part of learning how to choose a UTM router is reading the attitude of its existing customer base.

Don't forget to visit the vendor's support site. Does it have a community? Check out its support features. Can you call for help or are you limited to e-mail or web support? If you're facing a problem in the middle of the night and trying to get the network up before your users return the next morning, you want to know that the vendor won't take 2-3 days to respond.

Never underestimate the value of a quality support team behind your product, even if another one has more features. None of those features matter when the network is down.

Don't forget to review how often the subscription services receive updates. If you use web filtering or anti-virus, you want to know that the service has frequent updates to help protect you from malicious sites and traffic.

How To Choose A UTM Router For Your SMB

There are some who don't like the concept of UTM routers at all.  They believe a router should route, a firewall should protect, and other dedicated systems should perform the other operations. There is logic to this belief. A UTM router represents a single point of failure or vulnerability (which is why I always recommend using a pair running in High Availability). When you separate these functions, you can choose best of breed for each one.

The problem is that is often too expensive and too cumbersome for most SMB networks. Multiply that expense by the number of sites you have and it's easy to see how the cost and complexity increases. You have to maintain each component individually. Also, a failure of any component can still put a blight on your network.

UTM routers exist to provide SMB networks with protection from a world with increasing threats and attacks, and wraps them in a user-friendly web interface that makes it easy to control. Not every business has a geek on hand who thrives on terminal interfaces using arcane command lines.

Even so, small and medium businesses face many of the same problems and same threats as larger businesses. They simply have fewer resources to dedicate to their protection. That's why you want a UTM router. They can provide you with enterprise protection with an easy to use interface. The trick is to make sure it handles your needs, grows with your business, and has a fantastic support team ready to help when you need it.

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