BONUS! We’ve also created a handy infographic you can download and share with your planning team to help keep everyone on course! Grab it here or scroll to the bottom of the page.
Unfortunately, we can’t tell you exactly which devices make the most sense for your specific use case, but we can help you develop a framework for thinking about how to make an informed decision. Here, we’ll do just that.
Network device buyer’s guide rule 1: Buy to meet business goals and optimize workflows
There are plenty of specs and technical considerations involved in buying network devices for business. And, of course, everyone has a budget. That makes it easy to focus on technical capabilities and sticker price alone.
However, you can’t lose sight that ultimately the network exists to enable business functions. It’s essential to consider the business impact your purchasing decisions have. Getting the most throughput for your dollar is nice, but it isn’t the only decision point. Network performance and security requirements, compliance, high availability, warranty, service and repair options, IT asset life-cycle management (ITAM) workflows, how well devices integrate with existing infrastructure, and even supply chain issues all matter.
You also need to be able to think about the “good enough” principle in a way that isn’t pejorative. You can always optimize and future-proof a bit more. But at some point, those become diminishing returns. Remember the old adage, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If you’re thinking about “good enough” objectively, it can be a good bar for balancing cost, complexity, and features.
The Key Takeaway: Look for the network devices best suited for the business outcomes you need to deliver. Those circumstances are different for every organization, so it’s the best place to start.
Vendors matter, too
Additionally, your familiarity with different vendors and tech stacks can impact how well teams can install, provision, and provide service for the network devices once they’re deployed. Similarly for an MSP, it’s hard to overstate the value of uniformity across customer environments.
Important considerations when buying network devices for business
Now that we have an end goal in mind, let’s jump into how to think about making a purchasing decision. Before we jump into specific device considerations, here’s some general points that apply across all network device categories.
Answering these questions can help narrow down your choices quickly and make better decisions when comparing devices.
- Is this a new project or an upgrade? If you’re building a network from scratch, you’ll have more flexibility in your choices. You can optimize without the constraints of existing infrastructure. But if you’re adding or replacing equipment in an existing network, you’ll need to consider the constraints of the existing infrastructure. Sometimes the buying decision becomes as simple as purchasing the same models you already have.
- How will you monitor and manage these devices? How well IT can perform network discovery, network monitoring, and network management has a major impact on visibility, troubleshooting, and uptime. How easily will your network devices integrate with your existing tools? If you don’t — or your existing tools aren’t up to the job — check out 10 Best Network Monitoring Tools, Compared to find a solution.
- How much downtime can you tolerate? No one wants downtime, but it gets progressively harder to go from three to four to five “nines” (refresher: 99.999% uptime or “five nines” is a little over 5 minutes of downtime per year). Understanding your uptime requirements and SLAs will help you make decisions around stocking onsite spares, dual power supplies, and other high availability features.
- Do you have any compliance requirements? In some cases, SOX, HIPAA, and PCI DSS compliance requirements will drive implementation decisions and feature requirements. In others, like TAA requirements, country of origin, and data sovereignty laws may come into play.
More important questions
Less than critical, but still import other important questions in our network device buyer’s guide that can also help you narrow your search include:
- What type of warranty and service does the vendor provide? What’s covered under warranty? How do parts get shipped? How easy is it to make a warranty claim?
- Does the team have expertise with a specific vendor or tech stack? Is your team expert-level with one vendor or tech stack? Switching will come with tradeoffs that can impact operational costs and network optimization efforts.
- Will the supply chain be an issue? One of the lessons we’re learning in the 2020s is that supply chain reliability and product availability can completely derail IT projects. Choosing suppliers likely to have the availability to meet immediate and long-term demands is an important consideration when buying network devices for business.
Where to start: what devices do you need?
You’ve done your initial assessment, and you’ve focused your search by answering some important questions. Now it’s time to start drilling down to specific network devices. Let’s look at a list of key points to consider when buying the actual network devices for your business.
Looking for more information about specific vendors, or the vendor landscape? Download Auvik’s annual Vendor Diversity Report free!
Network switches and routers
Network switches and routers are the staples of network projects. It’s also a very broad category covering a lot of ground. Here are some key considerations for network switching buying:
- Managed or unmanaged? For most cases, managed switches are the right answer, as it enables VLANs, network loop prevention, and QoS. If you go with a managed switch, make sure you have a plan for switch configuration and switch management. As a general guideline: the more you can automate switch configuration and backup, the more resilient your network infrastructure will be.
- L2 or L3 switch? Layer 3 switches can reduce the number of network devices you need to buy, but can also come with more cost and complexity. That’s why Layer 2 switches can often be “good enough”. There’s no right answer, but to learn more I recommend checking out Layer 2 vs Layer 3 Network Switches: What’s the Difference? for a deep dive on the topic.
- L3 router (or something else)? If you’re making a router buying decision, it’s useful to consider whether or not an L3 router, switch, or firewall is a better choice. To help sort through your options, check out our article on the subject: Will Layer 3 Switches Give Routers the Boot?
- Ports: How many, and what type? You’ll need network ports, at minimum, for all the devices you plan to connect. You’ll also likely want to leave some available ports for growth. And those ports will need to support the network speeds your application calls for, be the right physical medium (e.g., copper vs. fiber), and have the right connectors (e.g., RJ45, LC, or SC).
- Do you need PoE? While you’re thinking about ports, also think about Power over Ethernet (PoE). Endpoint devices like cameras typically need power in addition to data in one plug. What’s the total wattage of the equipment you need to support? Is purchasing a few PoE injectors a better option than getting PoE switches?
- What form factor? Switches come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Rackmount switches for 19-inch server racks are common, but so are desktop switches and even switches designed for DIN rail mounting.
- Proprietary or open networking? Open networking solutions allow you to deploy a network operating system on off-the-shelf commodity hardware, which can reduce costs and vendor lock-in. But there may be a feature, support, and complexity tradeoffs.
- Do you need an industrial switch? Depending on the physical environment you deploy your network devices in, you may need a switch designed to withstand harsh conditions. Wider operating temperature ranges, or IP67 ratings for protection against dust, debris, and liquids.
Wireless access points
Wireless connectivity needs will vary significantly depending on your use case. Providing WiFi for multiple small offices comes with a different set of requirements than one large building deploying enterprise WLAN. Here are some key questions to keep in mind to help you find the right solution:
- What WiFi standards do you need to support? Client devices and future-proofing will drive your decision here. Generally, you’ll need at least 802.11n (WiFi 4) for modern applications, and 802.11ac (WiFi 5) is probably a better bet in most cases. 802.11ax (WiFi 6) is gaining popularity and is backward compatible.
- Dual-band or single-band? Support for both the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz WiFi bands will give you the most coverage from a device perspective. If you can go dual-band, it’s usually the right answer. But, a single-band device might be the right balance of cost and performance for certain use cases.
- How many spatial streams? MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) enables WiFi devices to use multiple radio antennas and chains to send and receive data. In short, more chains enable better network performance and reliability—1×1, 2×2, 3×3, and 4×4 spatial streaming options are available.
Is WiFi 6 Worth It?
With the additional speeds WiFi 6 offers, it can be worth the cost for use cases that have high-performance demands. However, to get the performance boost from WiFi 6, you’ll need to have room for the wider WiFi channels it takes advantage of and generally needs devices to be within ~30 feet of an access point.
A network is a huge attack surface, and network security has to be a top priority as you build. Asking the right questions when making buying decisions about security devices like next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) and unified threat management appliances is an important exercise.
Here are some key questions to keep in mind as you go:
- What’s your network perimeter? Traditional castle-and-moat-style network perimeters are mostly a thing of the past. With cloud workloads, edge computing, and remote work, perimeters are now much more fluid. That often means security solutions need to be tighter than network-and-port-based firewall rules. Defining your perimeter will help you define where to deploy devices. For example, if cloud solutions make sense, what type of policies do you need to implement?
- What functions do you need to support? The laundry list of security features available to enterprises is huge, and there’s a lot of overlap across appliances. What are your must-haves? Some important features to look out for include:
- Intrusion prevention/detection system (IPS/IDS)
- TLS 1.3 inspection/deep packet inspection
- URL filtering
- Zero-trust network access (ZTNA)
- Web application firewalls (WAF)
- Intelligent threat detection (zero-day threat prevention)
- Email protection
- How will you configure and update the appliances? Configuration management is a key aspect of network firewall security. If you don’t have consistent and complete policies configured across your appliances, there’s an increased reach of a breach. Appliances that make it easy to automate the process and configure at scale can reduce risk.
- Do they integrate with your other security solutions? Visibility silos hurt security. Multiple discrete point appliances create silos. If a solution can integrate with your existing network security monitoring and management tooling, you can reduce silos and increase overall network visibility.
Don’t forget about power and cooling!
And finally, as you add network devices to your infrastructure, you need to consider the increased power and cooling requirements. Generally, you’ll want mission-critical network devices with AC power cords plugged into a UPS battery backup to avoid downtime and provide power protection. Keep your PoE budgets in mind and size a UPS that provides the battery runtime you need to either keep equipment running or enable a generator to kick on.
While the power side of things is hard to miss (after all, you have to turn the stuff on!) it can be easy to overlook the HVAC side. But don’t! Heat can reduce device reliability and more power consumption means more heat in a room.
For every additional Watt of power you consume, you’re generating an additional ~3.41 BTUs of heat. While that doesn’t amount to much for a few small network devices, a rack full of equipment can have a significant impact. Ensure your HVAC system can account for the additional heat loads, or consider investing in spot coolers to offset new heat loads.
Final thoughts: Keep the bigger picture in mind
Context should drive all of your network device purchasing decisions. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you’re following our network device buyer’s guide for best practices and can quantify your business needs, making the right choice gets easier.