Service providers are finding it increasingly harder to make money supplying only bandwidth to their business customers. At the same time, for smaller businesses particularly, permanent Internet connections are perceived as dangerous gateways that can be exploited to destroy or steal their corporate information.
One way for service providers to increase revenues, and look after their business customers' concerns, is to include in their offerings value-added products and services that their customers would typically purchase from third party suppliers. Integral to this strategy is the Internet server appliance or Internet media gateway that hosts and supports many of the ancillary features required for a secure and useful business Internet connection.
Internet servers for business connections
Internet servers are programmable server platforms that provide a combination of services starting with network address translation (NAT) and dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP), but usually supporting additional features that may include firewalling, spam blocking, URL and content filtering, virus protection, e-mail services, domain name service (DNS), virtual private networking (VPN) and many other security, ASP or Internet related services.
The attraction of the Internet server is that it provides one-stop shopping for a client's entire Internet related requirements, with these requirements being supplied and administered by a trusted and competent agent, namely his ISP.
For the ISP, Internet servers provide:
* Added value to the client, and therefore an additional source of recurring revenue.
* An excellent means of reducing customer churn. The differentiated package of Internet access plus Internet services is difficult for an existing client to duplicate with a competing provider.
Most of these servers are based on PC technology, although as 'headless' devices they normally look much more like routers or other black boxes than traditional PCs. The processors used run the gamut from specialised RISC devices such as ARM-based microprocessors, up to the latest in Intel or AMD high end PC processors. They may or may not include a hard disk and often boot from Flash ROM. Since the ISP administers most of these machines remotely, the customer can enjoy their benefits without having to invest in the additional expertise needed to properly manage them. The servers are almost always Linux or FreeBSD based, as these operating systems provide a combination of cost, flexibility, performance and robustness in the networking role that make them ideal for this environment.
Internet server appliances are supplied by companies such as eSoft, Mitel Networks, Emergecore Networks, AudioRamp, Blue Coat Systems, Sun Cobalt and WatchGuard amongst others in the US and Europe.
The WAN connection
The Internet side of the server may be connected by conventional Ethernet to the WAN through the conventional hub, router, DSU/CSU or modem. As an alternative, all the WAN support can be made integral to the appliance by adding an internal WAN adapter, such as those manufactured by Sangoma Technologies or SBE.
David Mandelstam, CEO, Sangoma Technologies
WAN cards are devices that provide support for the line protocols such as ATM, Frame Relay or PPP, and usually include the front end telco connection hardware such as a T1 DSU/CSU or ADSL interface. PCI-based, the cards are either intelligent devices, unloading the communication overhead from the host server, or simple frame pumps that require all processing to be handled by the host's processor itself. The adapters are supplied complete with drivers that connect to the server's routing stack, and frequently include utilities for set-up and line maintenance.
The WAN adapter in the server appliance replaces the hub, router, and DSU/CSU typically found in the public segment of the customer's network. The reason that internal WAN cards can be direct replacements for expensive, high end external routers is that the modern Unix-based server operating systems include complete, field tested support for all the IP routing services and protocols in use today and tomorrow. The only component needed is the WAN adapter itself, supporting both the line protocol and the telco modem interface (DSU/CSU).
Better reliability and security
Such an arrangement makes obvious sense from the customer point of view. What they would expect from their ISP, is a single device between the LAN and the Internet, not a series of different boxes, cables and power supplies. Their server room space is restricted and expensive, and likely does not have much free space for unnecessary devices. Nor do they typically have spare UPS capacity to support them.
Less immediately apparent to the customer, but perhaps more important, the system reliability is enhanced by removing the points of failure represented by up to three discreet electronic devices and their individual power supplies, plus several cables. Using an Internet server appliance with a WAN adapter also increases the security of the customer's network. Routers and DSU/CSU are intelligent devices, designed to be managed over the Net, and they operate on a public LAN segment unprotected by the server's firewall. Each of these is vulnerable to remote manipulation by hackers. In contrast, with an internal WAN card, the firewall is acting on the network interface itself, affording it exactly the same level of protection provided to the rest of the internal network.
The combination of an Internet server appliance and WAN adapter simplifies installation and management of the WAN link for both the customer and service provider. There is no separate operating system to learn for either a router or CSU/DSU. Software and utility toolkits provided by the WAN card manufacturers make it easy to seamlessly integrate the WAN and line management tools into the management system of the rest of the server.
The WAN card manufacturers also use the power, speed and memory of the Internet server when necessary to automatically run line debugging daemons when network events occur. These programs pinpoint the causes of network problems by means of logical analysis of the card, DSU/CSU and line statistics, and they present useful results in easily understood form. Where the problem can be solved by reconfiguration, this is done automatically. It is like having a network administrator watching the network 24 hours per day.
Some of the WAN card manufacturers provide proprietary remote management systems for the WAN, and all support SNMP to some extent.
A better product for service providers and customers
For the ISP considering the deployment of Internet servers, the combination of an integrated WAN adapter and Internet appliance opens up additional sources of revenue and profit. In initial capital outlay, the internal WAN cards are usually a fraction of the cost of the equipment they replace. The savings are so great that the ISP can increase both revenue and margins while simultaneously reducing costs to the end-user. Everybody wins. And on a recurring basis, the service provider now has access to the annual router management fee normally collected by the router manufacturer.
For smaller businesses that are new to WAN connectivity and perhaps have no internal network administration, full time connection to the Internet is scary. Newspapers are full of the latest virus scare and stories of security break-ins. ISPs now have the opportunity of providing a single device, branded with their logo, representing the service provider's commitment to take care of everything related to the Net. The branded Internet server represents to the customer not just a raw Internet connection, but also an holistic, managed system providing him with connectivity, safety and security.
As margins on selling the raw bandwidth continue to be squeezed we can expect to see service providers offer more innovative services to their customers and many of these will involve an Internet server appliance at the customer premises.
The server appliance that incorporates a WAN adapter provides true 'Internet-in-a-box' functionality, allowing the ISP to take total control of, and responsibility for the network connection for their clients. Happily, both service providers and their customers gain significant benefits from this complete package. It is not surprising therefore, that IDC predicts growth rates in this sector to exceed 100% per year for several years to come.