I first covered the topic of load-balancing your SMB's Internet access for greater speed and reliability earlier this year. As I mentioned then, businesses can get much higher reliability at a competitive (or similar) price by using two different Internet service providers connected via a multi-WAN router. In most cases, this also translates into greater bandwidth by combining the traffic from multiple links-potentially obtaining a higher speed than is possible with a single connection.
Well, I've had the opportunity to deploy and test the Peplink Balance380 Multi-WAN router since then. With three WAN ports, the company says it is suitable for businesses with between 100 to 500 users. You can see details of it on the Peplink Balance product page here, which also show the other products from the Balance family.
I review some of its key capabilities below.
One of the key tenets behind a multi-WAN solution is about achieving greater speed and reliability, an aspect that the Balance 380 performed flawlessly. I incorporated it into my home office network for a few months using a 16Mbps cable Internet service and a 6Mbps ADSL connection. While both ISPs were relatively stable, I did experience the intermittent failure in the past where Internet connectivity would fail for between a few minutes to a couple of hours.
In a nutshell, I never had an Internet outage while the Peplink appliance was in operation. To lose total Internet connectivity would require simultaneous outages from more than one ISP, which is highly unlikely. In fact, I once accidentally disabled one of the broadband modems, realizing it only a couple of days later.
Trying load balancing a single Web page across two or more links is not without some minor drawbacks, though. For one thing, Web pages that require some form of session-based authentication are likely to break due to the requests coming in from different IP addresses. Having foreseen that, Peplink has inserted a default rule that forces HTTPS-protected Web pages to default to a single link for encrypted pages; companies will find it a trivial matter to get normal HTTP traffic to behave in the same way.
The Balance 380 can serve as a PPTP VPN server for SMBs with branch offices. Arguably the most powerful aspect of its VPN capability, though, is Peplink's proprietary site-to-site VPN bonding feature, which allows similar devices to create bonded VPN tunnels to multiple sites. Only the IP address and serial number of the corresponding Peplink appliance was needed for me to create an encrypted connection to the company's corporate headquarters in Hong Kong. Having struggled for hours to figure out the correct configuration to create VPNs between dedicated firewalls in the past, this was so simple, it was almost absurd.
To test its capabilities, I performed a few FTP transfers (upload and download) of a 20-megabyte file with an FTP server located on Peplink's network. Despite the protocol overhead, I observed a speed greater than expected from one link alone. To simulate link failure, I disconnected the Ethernet cable from the first WAN port. Plugging it back in, I repeated my actions with the second WAN port. Though I did this a few times, the FTP file transfer continued uninterrupted. I also verified that the transferred zip file was not corrupted.
Ease of Operation
I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from Peplink at the CommunicAsia 2010 exhibition in Singapore earlier this year, and they explained to me the company's philosophy of putting an easy-to-use interface on the complex technology behind their company's multi-WAN appliances. I must agree that the company has succeeded in this regard. Despite its powerful capabilities, the Balance 380 was no harder to use than, say, a consumer-centric wireless router.
The simple Web interface leads to a friendly interface where custom load-balancing rules, for example, can be reprioritized using drag-and-drop. And unlike the poorly documented interface of most networking devices, detailed information about to its various options is available by simply clicking on the help symbol scattered liberally throughout the administrative interface.
In the few months that I've used the Balance 380, I have yet to experience a situation, beyond upgrading the firmware, that required the device to be reset. This marks it as a solid business device with a wealth of features. A brief overview: the appliance has syslog support, SNMP, high-availability options, bandwidth control and application filtering. In addition, it is possible to set outbound policy with any of seven different algorithms. Out of the box, the Balance 380 requires only some basic configuration before it is ready to use.
Certainly, there are multi-WAN devices that are more powerful or that can aggregate far more links. For SMBs with up to 500 users, though, I dare say that they will be very satisfied with the Peplink Balance 380.