Product review: Two routers make their mark

Cisco and Black & Decker go head-to-head in the medium-workload space

Editor's note: The following story is from InfoWorld’s 2008 April Fool's spoof-news feature package. It is not true. Enjoy!

It was with great anticipation that I unboxed two new routers in the lab a few days ago. Both Cisco and Black & Decker had sent me their best entrants in the hotly contested medium-workload router market. Both had promised the sun, the moon, and the skies above, claiming that their product was simply the best available. I was anxious to put these claims to the test.

Cisco’s entry was the 3825 ISR, designed to provide a large number of features in a compact and affordable footprint. Indeed, the features list of the 3825 reads like a wish list: modular chassis, wirespeed performance at up to half-T3 rates, support for 90 different modules, integrated routable gigabit Ethernet ports, PoE options, four high-speed WAN interface cards, and more. In addition, up to 2,000 VPN tunnels can be run through the 3825, and there's even voice support for up to 168 IP phones. That’s a lot to ask from a little box.

On the other hand, Black & Decker’s Firestorm 12 Amp EVS 1/2-inch Plunge Router was no slouch. Sporting a 12-amp high-performance motor, support for both quarter-inch and half-inch collets, electronic variable speed control, and – possibly the most important – an all-metal plunge suspension, the Firestorm is certainly well-equipped. Color me impressed.

[ April Fools! Click here for more InfoWorld April Foolery. ]

The first order of business was to get both routers up and running in the lab. The Cisco router was simple to rack, and after connecting a serial console, I was up and running in a few minutes. After entering a baseline configuration, I ran some simulated workloads through the router to check the config, and all was well.

Racking the Black & Decker Firestorm proved to be a bit of a challenge. It doesn’t appear that the Firestorm is built to standard rack tolerances, and the unit’s power cord is not detachable. After some fiddling, I was able to wedge the router in an empty space in the rack by tugging gently on the power cord, then smashing my hand against the handle repeatedly. In my mind, installation shouldn’t be this difficult. Then, I discovered that I couldn’t locate the serial console port. In fact, the documentation didn’t even reference a serial console, which is a very puzzling omission.

Figuring that I might have better luck by simply firing it up, I powered on the Firestorm. This is where I discovered another serious drawback – you have to hold down the power button at all times. This could be a significant problem at remote sites, where there might not be a network administrator available to sit in the datacenter all day.

Further, the hand strength required to hold down the power button for extended periods of time is not insignificant. During three days of testing, unplanned outages were frequent; indeed, the longest stretch of uninterrupted service was 6:48. Though this effort was admirable in itself, and perhaps permanently crippling for my intern, the result is woefully inadequate from an enterprise SLA standpoint. Our recommendation: Firestorm operators should be expected to fulfill shifts no longer than 20 or 30 minutes in duration.

In addition to this inherent reliability issue, I quickly discovered that my ad hoc racking job might have caused some problems – when I finally powered it on, the Firestorm began shaking violently, digging a furrow into the side of the rack and narrowly missing the top of a Sun Galaxy server. I decided to continue testing the Firestorm on the workbench.

Here, the Firestorm shone. With an exquisite piece of flamed maple, I was able to quickly and confidently shape and detail a decorative plaque featuring a sparrow and two acorns. After careful application of some stain, it was ready for the den.

The workbench scenario was not as kind to the Cisco ISR, which proved to be a sore disappointment. While the Firestorm lost points due to the lack of a fixed power switch, the Cisco 3825 lost points due to the difficulty involved with maneuvering the router while toggling the power switch on and off when necessary. Also, there was apparently a production problem with my test unit, since I had to open the case to access the bit, which inexplicably looked exactly like a small fan. In fact, the first time I tried to make an impression on yet another piece of flamed maple, this oddly shaped bit essentially self-destructed, with little plastic pieces flying in all directions. It was a good thing I always wear safety goggles. Let that be a lesson.

After more testing, it became clear that the Cisco 3825 can easily handle the rough-and-tumble world of multiple-service branch office routing, but is useless as a brick for shaping maple. Surprisingly, the Black & Decker Firestorm was the exact opposite, offering solid workbench performance, but lacking even the basic requirements for a remote-site router. However, given the enormous difference in price, it might actually be the better bet if the budget’s tight.

Between these two capable units, I now have a nice new conversation piece in my den, and the ability to terminate thousands of VPN tunnels. So whichever task is more important to you will likely dictate your choice. As for me, I’m going back to the workbench to see if I can make the good old-fashioned MAC address table that I’ve always wanted.