Wonderful router: Little boxes, lots of talents

June 8th, 2009 - 9:19 am ICT by IANS  

By Jan Kluczniok
Hannover, June 8 (DPA) It wasn’t long ago that the humble router led an uneventful existence. Its task was to distribute incoming data packets to attached computers.

It was also entrusted with blocking the occasional packet off the Internet if it hadn’t been ordered by one of the PCs.

But in recent years the diminutive network boxes have morphed into tidy little communication hubs combining network connectivity, a WLAN access point, and often even a telephone system as well. “That saves a lot of electricity and jumble of cables,” says Johannes Endres from Hanover-based computer magazine c’t.

Routers offer many other unexpected functions as well. Here’s a rundown of a few.

An analogue phone connection has typically meant being stuck with just one phone line. One cost-effective way to work with multiple lines using your own phone number is to use a router with a built-in Internet telephony function (VoIP) and a corresponding switching box.

“It’s significantly cheaper than an ISDN connection, although it also doesn’t offer the same range of functions,” Endres says. A VoIP provider can be selected as desired. You should first check whether your contract with your ISP already includes VoIP service - such as a flat rate for all calls within your national landline network.

Many routers also possess a USB port for connecting a printer, external hard drive, or USB stick. Those devices are then available to all computers on the home network. “That solution requires less electricity than using a computer as a network server. It is slower, though,” Endres explains. For those who only occasionally swap data, the solution is often sufficient.

Users who need to access data on their home network while on the go can use dynamic DNS (DynDS) and the port forwarding function on the router. DynDNS allows the router to be addressed worldwide via a single host name. The port forwarding function makes it possible to access a specific PC or hard drive on your home network from any Internet-ready computer worldwide.

“That can be a big help if you’re on a business trip and find out that you’ve forgotten some key files at home,” Endres notes.

Modern routers make it easy to configure WLAN devices like laptops.

The old system of manually entering long encryption keys has been replaced with a process that connected the device into the WLAN system at the press of a button or key, explains Thomas Jell, of networking hardware maker Netgear.

Other options include the use of PIN numbers or integration by physically inserting a USB stick that undertakes the configuration. The standard behind those functions is known as Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS).

The new generation of routers takes great pains to prevent security holes. “In theory the increased range of functions means that there are more opportunities to attack the devices, but our practical tests show that it really doesn’t work that way,” Endres says.

Routers typically come with all supplementary functions switched off; the user must actively switch them on. “Make sure that no functions are switched on that you don’t really use and understand,” Endres warns.

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