And they all do pretty much the same thing. They mount on DIN rails, survive harsh environments and generally route ethernet packets where they’re supposed to go. So then, on what basis can we assess if one industrial router has the edge on another? Simply put, good software is the distinguishing factor.
Routers are really just computers, with a CPU, memory and an operating system (typically Linux). To truly take advantage of a computer requires software, and it’s the same with routers.
What then distinguishes “good” or “great” software from the rest?
Industrial router software features
The first hallmark of good software is that it makes an industrial router easy to configure. Nowadays there’s no reason why an industrial router shouldn’t come with both a graphical user interface (GUI) and command line interface (CLI). So it stands to reason that configuration files should then also be deployed via autorun USB.
Secondly, good software can expand on the basic functionality of a router. At a minimum it should provide the full menu of routing options including static routes, multipath, OSPF and BGP protocols. Additionally, software can also ensure the industrial router accommodates multiple WAN technologies including ethernet, WLAN and LTE.
Further, good software makes the router more secure with firewall functionality and support for protocols like OpenVPN and IPsec. It can also extend the functionality of the router by adding services like DHCP server, DNS server, NTP server, SNMP, email and Quality of Service (QoS).
Finally, good router software should include a software development kit (SDK). SDKs enable users to customize the router to their own needs by writing scripts and implementing custom functions and applications.
While software offers the opportunity to greatly expand the features and capabilities of industrial routers, software also comes with a certain responsibility. A stewardship.
What is software stewardship? Well, it comprises all those things that make the software safe, predictable and easy to use. Software should be tested regularly. Bugs need to be fixed and documented. Security patches need to be developed and released in a timely manner. And software needs to have release notes so users understand the capabilities and limitations of the product.
Software stewardship also includes software updates. Such updates include not only fixing and improving existing functionality, but also adding new functionality. Ideally, software updates have three important properties. First, they occur on scheduled release cycles. Second, they’re free. Third, they do not require an upgrade to the router hardware.
Finally, organizations that use industrial routers tend to use several different models, as each is designed for a slightly different application. It’s much easier, from an operational standpoint, if there’s a single version of the software for all the different industrial router models. It minimizes configuration management efforts and ensures that all the software features are available on all the different models.
Next time you’re in the market for an industrial router try asking the vendor:
- How often do you actually update your software?
- How long will you provide software updates for the product?
- Are the updates for the product free for life?
- Do you have a dedicated resource to review CVE updates to identify possible security vulnerabilities?
- Do you provide release notes on each software update?