Farallon's Netopia Tops Ascend's Pipeline ISDN Router With More than Just a Pretty Interface
By David Strom
ISDN and Internet access used to be like oil and water: there was always a lot of effort involved in mixing the two together. Stir in the ability to connect not just a single computer but an entire network via ISDN to the Internet, and the situation becomes even more unpalatable. But ever since Farallon's Netopia ISDN router began shipping in December 1995, small businesses and schools now have a better and more tasty solution.
Furthermore, I think Netopia deserves a careful look even when compared to Ascend's Pipeline 50 router. While Ascend became the industry leader in ISDN routers, it doesn't stack up to the Netopia in terms of ease of use or total cost of ownership. Netopia is relatively simple to configure; it comes with all the right kinds of software, cables and connectors; and it even has a guarantee to get your internet connection up and running, ideally suited for small businesses that do not have in-house systems expertise.
Ascend's popularity is due to the fact that most Internet Service Providers use these routers to supply ISDN connections to their customers and recommended them for their customer's premises. However, Pipelines are not really intended for inexperienced users -- or even moderately experienced ones. The Pipeline's user interface is atrocious and designed for Unix hackers that are comfortable at the command line.
Pipeline, however, is more flexible than Netopia -- especially when it comes to supporting seldom-used and arcane ISDN parameters. However, this flexibility comes at a price: you may need more help in configuring these parameters than just accepting the defaults provided by Netopia.
My bottom line: it may be worth your while to find an ISP that supports Netopia for your ISDN connections.
Farallon has designed a router for the mainstream small business and even guarantees that it will work. This "Up & Running, Guaranteed!" as Farallon calls it, is unique in this industry as far as I know. Farallon will provision your ISDN line with your local phone company, and setup your Internet account with a local Internet service provider. This is a big help: ordering ISDN can be confusing even for an experienced network manager and Farallon has attempted to remove as much complexity and hassle from the process as is possible.
The Up & Running package comes with a series of two forms (one for the phone company, one for the Internet provider) along with detailed instructions on how to fill these out. And, there is also a handy list of providers that support Netopia along with their monthly ISDN access charges, available on Farallon's faxback server or web site. All of this is more documentation than most phone companies or Internet providers give you, and the assistance is most welcome.
In addition to getting you the connections, Farallon will remotely configure your Netopia router as well. As part of its package, Farallon provides a 19.2 k bps analog modem that fits into the Netopia's PC Card slot so their technicians can connect to the router and get it all configured and setup even before your ISDN line is operational. And the package deal includes Farallon's Timbuktu remote control/access software, which is useful so that Farallon technical support can show you how to setup a model workstation on your network. Finally, Farallon provides up to a year of toll-free phone support as well as next-day replacement if your router should stop working during that year. It's hard to see how anyone can lose with such a program.
Let's take a look at the way both Netopia and Pipeline are configured and controlled: while you won't be spending lots of time with these screens, they do indicate the kind of audience both products are intended.
First off, you have to choose how you control the router. You can use telnet to connect to both routers, or there are serial ports on both that can be connected directly to a terminal or a PC running communications software (I used Windows' Terminal program for this purpose, for example). Netopia comes with all the cables you will need, while you'll need to buy your own cables for Pipeline.
Pipeline has two different user interfaces: bad and horrible. The former is a screen-oriented one that has one window for user-selectable commands on the left side, and a series of windows of status information on the right. The "horrible" interface is strictly command-line: something that only a Unix hacker can comprehend and indeed Ascend calls this their "terminal server interface" just to make it clear who they are aiming at. Netopia has a single interface that is screen-oriented and in clear English: you can display the status of the router alternatively with command entry screens.
Both products allow you to setup and store multiple connection profiles: this is useful for having alternate phone numbers or Internet Service Providers to call. Pipeline allows up to four different ones, while Netopia can handle up to 16 different profiles. To make things more obscure, Pipeline stores these configurations under a series of menus that begin with the choice "Ethernet." Contrast this with Netopia, that stores them under a series of menus that begin with the choice "Connection Profiles." Which do you think is clearer?
Speaking of connections, one of Netopia's neat features that Pipeline lacks is being able to schedule your connections: if you don't want your users connecting to the Internet in the evening or lunch hour, you can easily set this up to occur automatically. You can also use this feature to prevent unauthorized use, hence control access charges. With Pipeline, you would have to remember to do this manually.
Ascend's manual is as cryptic as its interface. While it does a decent job of documenting all the commands used by the router, it is still tough going for those new to routers or TCP/IP or ISDN concepts, let alone all three. Netopia, by contrast, is well-written, with a decent glossary and lots of good examples on what to do for newbies.
Here is an example from the documentation of both products. Let's say that I am switching Internet providers and want to be able to turn on or off a particular connection profile. With the Pipeline, it tells me:
Active. The "Active" field is boolean valued. If "Active=Yes," this profile is enabled. If "Active=No," the connection is disabled until "Active=Yes."
Boolean valued? I think they mean it either has a value of yes or no. Here is what the Netopia manuals say:
Select Profile Enabled and toggle it to Yes to activate the profile. Which would you rather read?
But the proof is in the pudding and reading manuals will only tell you part of the picture. I setup both Netopia and Pipeline routers with two different Internet Service Providers -- PSINet and UUNet. The Netopia was the easier of the two to get going as well as to monitor on a daily basis -- I just could never get used to the cryptic Pipeline screens and menus-within-menus. While I appreciated the greater control that Pipeline offered over some of the ISDN parameters, I found that ultimately these were not big-ticket items. For example, you can control how much bandwidth you need and exactly when you want your second ISDN connection established with the Pipeline. With Netopia, you don't get this control, although I found that the factory-installed algorithm worked just fine.
The Pipeline's status screens are very hard to read and just figuring out whether your ISDN router is connected to the Internet or not at any given moment will take some careful study of the manuals and understanding of what is displayed on the screen. Netopia's status is obvious to even beginners and even simple tasks such as hanging up the ISDN connection can be accomplished in a single keystroke.
Netopia was also easier to upgrade its firmware than Pipeline. This firmware is the basic operating system of any router and it changes almost as frequently as the Internet itself. As new features are added and bugs are fixed, you'll need to learn how to download this firmware into your router. Netopia makes this maintenance process less of a chore and I was able to set up a Trivial File Transfer Protocol session directly with Farallon's server to upgrade my router's code.
With Pipeline, it is a tortured multi-step process that will involve using a PC running a communications program with X-Modem.
One of the places that Netopia shines is in supporting newly-formed TCP/IP networks. Perhaps the biggest issue for these new IP administrators is being able to deploy IP addresses to all of their desktops. The addresses must be unique and conform to particular numerical sequence in order for IP networking to work. Technology developed originally by a group headed by Ralph Droms at Bucknell University called Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) goes a long way towards solving that by automatically arranging address distribution. Farallon has very cleverly put a DHCP server inside Netopia, so that all Windows 95 clients as well as Windows 3.1, Unix and Macintosh clients with the appropriate software can take advantage of this feature. It is a big time-saver and will take about five minutes to get working. No other ISDN access router on the market, including the Pipelines, offers this capability in this price range.
DHCP is also handy in those situations where you have more network nodes than you have allotted addresses -- this means that more than one desktop can share the same IP address, provided that not everyone is connecting to the Internet at the same time.
Speaking of Macintoshes, if you have any at all on your network, you'll appreciate some of Netopia's standard features (available on the 440 models only): a LocalTalk to Ethernet gateway and support for IP encapsulation over LocalTalk. Just like DHCP for the PCs, Netopia also has a MacIP server built-in. This means that you can transform a simple LocalTalk network into one that is Internet-ready with a minimum of fuss and bother, and without any significant changes to the desktop MacOS configuration.
Let's talk prices for a moment. There are three different models for Netopia: the 440, which includes the LocalTalk connections and will also handle AppleTalk routing costs $1699. There is also the 630, which can handle up to 5 Windows concurrent connections, and the 640, which can handle unlimited Windows users. These units cost $1299 and $1599 respectively. Ascend has several different Pipeline models that range in price from $895 to $1695.
But these prices don't tell the entire story: a big difference is the Up & Running, Guaranteed program that buys you lots of piece of mind for an extra $499. And the Netopia package (every model) comes with two valuable additions: first are coupons that are good for up to $1250 off the price of PSINet Internet service. Next is a set of software that includes an IP protocol stack and a series of Internet software applications such as Netscape's Navigator web browser and Qualcomm's Eudora email client. Ascend doesn't have any such deals included with their routers.
All of this means that Netopia is actually a better bargain for the dollar and includes everything you need in one box -- hardware, software, service agreements and cables -- to get connected to the Internet. With Ascend, you'll have to supply some of this stuff on your own, and negotiate separately with both your Internet provider and phone company.
I think Netopia has the right combination of features, price, and usability when it comes to hooking up workgroups on a network to the Internet via ISDN. It's especially well suited and clearly designed for those businesses that either don't have or don't want to have their computer systems personnel dedicated to maintaining routers and fussing with the many parameters to keep a high-speed Internet line up and running.
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