December 16, 1996 10 AM ET

Compaq's first router leverages IOS
Mutates Cisco OS into easy-to-configure Netelligent 8500

By Michael Surkan

  Compaq Computer Corp. plays it safe with its first foray into the router arena, building on the foundation of established hardware and software. Compaq's Netelligent 8500 is housed in a 486 PC box, with standard components that allow great expansion flexibility at a highly competitive price point. The 8500's routing software is based on Cisco Systems Inc.'s IOS (Internetwork Operating System), providing a higher degree of reliability and compatibility than most other first-time entrants to the routing market. In addition, Compaq's hybrid IOS is much easier to use than the Cisco system.

However, the 8500 lacks many IOS features, including packet filtering and encrypted tunneling for virtual private networks. Multiprotocol routing for packet types other than IP and IPX also is conspicuously absent from theNetelligent 8500 feature set.

Indeed, the 8500 is a barebones router, but it is sound, expandable and affordable. As more add-ons become available and the IOS port becomes more feature-rich, the Netelligent will be hard to pass up.

With an estimated street price of $3,499 with 10BaseT Ethernet connectivity and two T-1 WAN serial ports, the recently released Netelligent 8500 is expensive for low-end, branch-office routing needs.

However, a mere $159 adds a Fast Ethernet card to one of the three PCI expansion slots, and RAM can be boosted with standard 72-pin single in-line memory modules. This kind of modular upgrade is much more expensive in traditional routers and isn't even possible at the low end.

Ironically, however, the very network professionals who find Cisco routing software attractive will likely steer clear of the Netelligent 8500 because Compaq has eschewed Cisco IOS' beloved (yet obtuse) command-line interface.

This may turn off die-hard IOS fans, but it made the 8500 much easier for us to configure. We found our way around the plain-English command line of a console, or Telnet session, in the Netelligent 8500 router much more intuitively than we can with Cisco's IOS.

The bundled Windows-based NMS (Netelligent Management Software) further simplified the process with convenient setup wizards. NMS even provided a BOOTP server feature that automatically assigned an IP address to our 8500 router. By simply right-clicking on the T-1 serial port in a screen image of the 8500, we could call up a setup wizard that walked us through the configuration.

Aside from the usual options for IP addresses and net masks, the 8500 allowed us to choose Cisco's proprietary IGRP (Interior Gateway Routing Protocol) as well as the Routing Information Protocol; advanced options make it possible to set a host of routing options such as hop counts and metrics.

Very few other routers support IGRP, and this feature alone could prove essential in Cisco-oriented network environments.

The setup wizards grew a bit tedious after a while, however, and we would have welcomed the ability to modify only specific parameters rather than walking through the entire setup routine each time.

The inclusion of built-in HTML management software in the 8500 also would be a nice addition. This would allow the routers to be graphically managed from any machine on the network, even if it were not a PC running Windows.

Proprietary management tools such as Compaq's NMS become dead weight in the heterogeneous networking environments in most companies.

Luckily, the Netelligent 8500 supports basic SNMP Management Information Base protocols, so it can at least be monitored from generic management packages such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Open View.

The hardware design of the 8500 is elegantly simple, with two easy-to-handle thumb screws that unhinge the bus for easy expansion. At the front of the unit are two PCMCIA card slots designed for the flash memory cards that hold the system images. One flash ROM card ships with the unit, and a second card can be purchased for use as a backup.

The use of PCMCIA Flash ROM cards also helps make the Netelligent 8500 well-suited for wide deployment. Administrators can change router configurations, or even entire internal code versions, at a central site. The preconfigured PCMCIA cards can be easily shipped to remote sites, where they can be installed even by novices.

Unfortunately, all expansion parts must be purchased through Compaq; even though any standard PCI card can fit into the 8500, very few are supported by the hybrid IOS.

Current 8500 upgrade options are somewhat limited. Basic add-ons such as a Primary Rate Interface (for high-bandwidth ISDN access) and ATM, for example, are missing.

Compaq, of Houston, can be reached at (800) 345-1518 or at

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