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NetEyes Cyclone 200 Load Balancing ADSL Router Review

Introduction

The NetEyes Cyclone 200 represents a new breed of hardware aimed at improving reliability and speed of internet access in the home or office by combining multiple broadband internet connections together, yet still maintaining a single internal network gateway. The Cyclone 200 satisfies this growing requirement by supporting up to two external Ethernet connections which are automatically load balanced according to bandwidth usage levels.

The Cyclone 200 is specified to support up to 2Mbps throughput although unofficially speeds of up to 12Mbps will be tolerated depending upon the number of computers (i.e. sessions) sharing the device. The router's older brother, the Cyclone 500 supports up to 5Mbps. We tested the Cyclone 200 with two standard BT ADSL 512k lines.

Requirements

The Cyclone 200 does not include an ADSL modem -- it's purely a router. This has the advantage of working under almost any environment (DSL, cable, wireless etc...) although the requirement for two additional ADSL modems with an Ethernet interface hikes up the setup price. The Cyclone performs all of the hard work including firewall (with stateful inspection) and NAT so the ADSL modem you purchase can be extremely basic with only a barebones set of features. The router performs NAT on the outside in the same way as the inside of your network. In summary, the following prerequisites must be satisfied before getting up and running:-

Physical Setup

The product arrived in a professionally printed box containing the following items:

Physical setup involves connecting the load balancer much the same way as a standard router/modem. The device contains a 4 port 10/100 auto sensing switch used for internal connectivity. The switch automatically senses uplink so there is no requirement for a cross-over cable. It can also be connected directly to internal PCs if desired.

Each external modem should be connected using a standard network cable to WAN ports 1 and 2 (the Cyclone will operate with just one external modem connection if required).


Cyclone 200 Connectors. From left to right: power connector, reset button, hardware configuration siwtches, WAN ports 1 & 2 (external), 4 LAN ports (internal).

A basic 60 page manual is supplied with the router and contains step by step procedures for setup and installation. We had little trouble setting everything up however, a reasonable level of technical understanding is highly recommended.

The router has a series of lights on the front panel to provide information to the user about the status of the device. The "WAN 1 & 2" LEDs represent the condition of each external internet connection. When illuminated, the link is active and operational. The "WAN Data" and "LAN Data" lights flash when there is activity on either the inbuilt switching hub (LAN) or external internet connections (WAN). The "WAN 1 & 2" lights also flicker to indicate which external link is being used. This has a tendency to be a little confusing at times - if a specific WAN connection is very busy, the LED is is barely illuminated at all and could be mistaken for a loss of connection.


Cyclone 200 Front Panel: From left to right: LAN speed and duplex indicators for each port, external (WAN) connection LEDs, WAN & LAN activity, system error LED, power LED.

Configuration

The default IP address of the router is set to 192.168.1.1 with a subnet mask of 255.255.255.0 and the internal DHCP server is automatically running for convenience. To access the web interface, it's a simple case of pointing your web browser to the router's IP (http://192.168.1.1) and logging in with the default credentials (username: admin, empty password). For security, you should set an admin password and this is the first thing you are prompted to do. We were glad to see that the router prompts the user to change password, an important step which is omitted by many other products.

After resetting the admin password, the first thing you are likely to want to do is verify and possibly change the router's network configuration. This is accessed through the LAN & DHCP submenu contained within the Basic Setup section.


Web Based Configuration -- LAN & DHCP Page

All web pages are well structured and contain context sensitive help accessed by clicking on the question mark in the top right hand corner. We found the web interface logical in design and responsive in operation. The router has a tendency to reboot after external IP address configuration changes are made (without warning) which can be frustrating, especially if a download is in progress on a separate line.

The Primary Setup is where all of the important external Internet access configuration is carried out. The page is split into two sections for WAN connection 1 and 2. In the example below, each ADSL modem occupies a separate IP address (192.168.10.1 and 192.168.11.1) and acts as a gateway for the router. The Cyclone also supports two external IP addresses instead of a second layer of NAT, which is recommended.

 
Web Based Configuration -- Primary Setup Page

The user manual was lacking in this area and only briefly discussed what should be done to get online. There are no sample configurations or recommended settings. If your external modems support DHCP, there is no need to configure a static IP address - this can be switched to "dynamic" using the corresponding drop down list box at the top of the page. Furthermore, one of the two external connections can be switched to "Backup" mode in case the primary link fails, this one will take over. It took roughly 30 minutes to perfect my setup although a fair portion of the time was tied up with configuring the two external modems.

Features

In addition to the usual features expected from any router (NAT, port forwarding, packet filtering, etc..) the Cyclone 200 boasts support for the following:

Load Balancing

Of course, the main reason why the Cyclone 200 exists is for load balancing. After initial configuration, the router will automatically start balancing traffic between the two external connections (if available). When a new outbound connection is established (e.g. request to retrieve a web page), the router automatically selects an external connection according to the fewest number of either :-

It is possible to specify which selection method should be used within the web based configuration pages. The number of bytes per second seemed to be the most logical option because this meant the router was always trying to distribute traffic fairly amongst each connection.


Web Based Configuration - Load Balance Configuration

The "loading share" percentage can be adjusted if one external connection is faster than the other. With load balancing enabled, web pages certainly loaded more promptly because multiple connections are made by the web browser (to retrieve images) and these can be balanced between the two external connections. It's important to remember that one outbound connection will never run faster than the speed of one external line (due to the nature of TCP, it's not possible to multiplex packets over two completely separate routed connections with different source addresses). When downloading a file we were achieving 60KB/sec, a normal speed over 512k ADSL. When downloading a second file at the same time, we were also receiving data at a rate of 60KB/sec, a total of 120KB/sec over the two downloads. Download managers such as GetRight can establish multiple connections for a single download and hence double the speed for a single file transfer.

Access Filtering

System administrators may with to deny access to specific ports or protocols to help limit the amount of bandwidth consumed by internal computer systems. The Cyclone 200 can block access to well known ports such as Real Audio, Telnet, FTP or up to 10 custom port ranges. Any changes made are automatically entered into the inbuilt packet filter / firewall. Access filtering can be applied to all computers, or up to 4 separate groups of machines defined within the Host IP section of the web configuration pages.

Website Filtering

The Cyclone can block access to any web page containing specified keywords. Keyword filtering is a bit of a black art and will almost certainly result in denial of access to other websites containing the same phrase. In the example below, We have prevented access to thinkbroadband.com however, any other website containing a link to thinkbroadband.com will also be blocked.


Web Based Configuration - Website Filtering

Up to 10 entries can be used. When attempting to visit a blocked website, the Cyclone simply refused to route any traffic; no error message was displayed within my browser which could be mistaken for the website being down. URL blocking can be applied to groups of internal computers in the same way as access filtering.

Multiple DMZ

Multiple de-militarised zones can be defined corresponding to inbound traffic over each external connection. Each zone may point to the same IP address (such as an internal firewall) or separate hosts depending upon network configuration.

Problems Encountered

After a couple of days of testing, We started to discover a range problems caused by the load balancing. Protocols such as FTP were behaving strangely, sometimes working and sometimes not. Online games which made use of UDP also suffered from severe packet loss and frequent loss of connection. ICQ randomly refused to connect and even browsing certain web pages was throwing a spanner into the works.

So, why does this happen? The main reason is due to source and destination IP addresses in combination with multiple connections to a specific remote host. When using FTP, a second connection is often established when transferring data (i.e. files). If the load balancer happens to choose the other connection from the one you are already using, the remote host will become confused and refuse to accept it.

In terms of online gaming, the router was trying to load balance UDP packets over each external connection. Unfortunately, if packets arrive at the gaming server from a different source address, they will be dropped and considered invalid. In the case of ICQ, it seems that the software makes a couple of connections when logging on (in sequence) but fails to remember which external line was used previously.

The root cause of the problem lies in the fact that beneath the Cyclone's glossy web interface, it isn't really very clever. Instead of remembering that recent connections to a specific host should be sent down the same external line, it merely continues to load balance based upon bytes/sec, packet/sec or number of sessions established. Fortunately there is a workaround within the "Advanced Feature" section of the web configuration pages called "Protocol & Port Binding". This feature allows the user to specify which external connection should be used for a specific protocol and port range. The first, and most simplistic option is to separate TCP traffic from UDP traffic as shown below.


Protocol & Port Binding - Direction of TCP via WAN1 and UDP via WAN2

A simple separation of this nature will certainly solve all load balancing problems, but severely restricted the effectiveness of the two connections. We found that by specifying a range of ports such as FTP, HTTPS and the higher port ranges (greater or equal to 1024) to use WAN1 and the remainder of TCP and UDP traffic to use WAN2 many problems were solved. Unfortunately there is only scope for 5 entries, which is extremely restrictive.


Protocol & Port Binding - Direction of specific traffic to different external connections

Update: Firmware version 2.0 Rel 0G02 fixes ICQ and FTP connectivity issues in addition to providing support for email alerts on link failure and entries for up to 10 port bindings (instead of a restrictive 5). Note that we have not tested this version.

Stability & Response Times

The unit remained operational for the entire duration of the review (over a week) without any crashes (apparently the Cyclone 200 model runs FreeBSD, which is pretty stable). Increase in latency was negligible (unnoticeable).

Verdict

The Cyclone 200 is likely to be interpreted as a product which solves everybodies bandwidth problems by seamlessly combining two internet connections together. Although the setup procedure is relatively straight forward for a moderately experienced computer user, the reality is not quite as rose tinted as it's made out to be. The product has a tendency to break the functionality of a number of common protocols and even access to certain websites due a lack of intelligence when balancing everyday traffic between its two connections. As We rapidly discovered while reviewing, an extensive amount of knowledge is necessary to correct or avoid such problems, which many users or businesses may not possess.

Viability

The Cyclone 200 is officially specified to operate up to 2Mbps with 15 computers. With many ISPs offering 1Mbps connections for twice the price of 512Kbps and 2Mbps connections for less than twice the price of 1Mbps, is it worth purchasing two connections and leasing two telephone lines which will end up costing more? In terms of obtaining a faster connection, it's probably not worth it (unless your line quality is too poor to obtain faster services), so under what circumstances would a Cyclone 200 be of use?

Summary

The Cyclone 200 represents an excellent hardware solution for broadband internet redundancy priced within reach of most businesses. The out of the box load balancing feature is reliable but fairly unintelligent and should not be considered a perfect solution for increasing speed of access to the internet.

Upcoming Products

Products in the development pipeline (as of May 2003) include:


Prices: £250 - NetEyes Cyclone 200 ADSL Load Balancing Router
Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.
 
Links:

http://www.xrio.co.uk
 

Where to Buy: See our DSL Hardware FAQ

Jeremy Ainsworth
jeremy@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision—You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.