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September 1999

StarGazer 1800 Preview

Pivotal Networking, Inc.
480 Mercury Dr.
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Ph: 408-731-4567
Fx: 408-731-4589
Web site: www.pivnet.com

Price: $1,395 (includes all add-ons)

Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 4.5
Features: 4.25
GUI: 4.5
Overall: A-

Used for small offices, Pivotal’s StarGazer 1800 ISDN router provides most of the routing features you might need and has Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and virtual private networking (VPN) functionality. By using Pivotal’s StarVoice VoIP capability, small offices can save money by placing calls over the Internet. When using a VPN, packets are encrypted so that they can pass through the Internet or other networks securely. All of these features can be monitored and managed using Pivotal’s Web-based graphical user interface.

When comparing the advanced beta version of StarGazer 1800 that we tested to other SOHO routers we have seen, the entire installation and initial configuration process was relatively easy. The main reasons for this luxury were StarGazer 1800’s built-in DHCP server, and its customizable Web-based interface. The fact that the administrator does not need to manually assign static IP addresses and can use the interface efficiently is a tribute to the simplicity of the product. There is an option to connect to a command line interface for additional configuration control, but with a few exceptions, there should be little need to do so since the Web interface is very powerful.

Setting up the router is a simple matter of connecting the power supply from the router to an outlet, an ISDN cable from the router to an ISDN wall jack, and a 10Base-T Ethernet cable from your PC to one of the ports in the built-in hub. It should be noted that the first port of the four-port hub could be used as an uplink, which is a crossover port, or as a regular port, if you do not need to connect your built-in hub to another hub. There is a switch at the bottom of the router that lets you pick which mode you want to use.

Once TCP/IP is installed and the proper settings are established, you can type the proper URL (IP address) into your Web browser, and Pivotal’s Web interface will open. For your initial configuration, all that you need to do is enter the default password, check the Basic Internet Access box on the customization screen of the Web-based interface (see Figure 1), and enter a few of the main ISDN settings. These are the ISDN switch type, the first and second ISDN directory phone numbers, the remote phone number given to you by your ISP, and the ISP account name and password. The switch type can be autodetected, as can the SPID numbers.

Out of the box, Pivotal’s documentation consists of a general quick-start guide as well as a sheet detailing how to use the VoIP capability. We also received a command line interface reference manual, but the main user guide for the StarGazer 1800 can be found on the CD-ROM. Even though any part of the user guide can be printed or can be navigated exclusively on the CD-ROM, we think a hard copy should be included for this particular product so users can reference the entire guide without accessing it through a computer, or having to print out the whole document.

Overall, the documentation is straightforward and very helpful and would be even more so with the inclusion of an index for the user guide. There are many areas where the documentation gave us step-by-step, diagrammed procedures on how to set up or configure certain aspects of the router. These are the most useful sections of the documentation, but since StarGazer 1800 is currently a beta that periodically goes through some minor developmental changes, the documentation is sometimes not entirely correct. Although we had little problem using the documentation, we could tell at times where minor changes were made in the Web interface that had not entirely been changed yet in the documentation.

The help files are commendable and can be accessed easily. When pressing the F1 key, the help file appears, but this could be slightly improved if the help was context sensitive to display the topic that is currently selected on the screen.

The following is a short list of the major features of Pivotal’s StarGazer 1800 router:

  • ISDN BRI with bandwidth on demand;
  • IP/IPX routing and spoofing, bridging;
  • Web-based graphical interface — Simple Malfunction Access configuRation Tool (SMART);
  • Built-in, four-port, 10Base-T hub with the possibility of an uplink as port 1;
  • Built-in DHCP server;
  • Three analog phone/fax ports;
  • Automatic ISDN switch and SPID detection;
  • Security — includes VPNs with DES encryption, packet filtering, PPP PAP/CHAP, callback, and configurable time-of-day Internet access control; and
  • VoIP with G.723.1 voice

To test the VoIP and VPN capabilities of the StarGazer 1800 router, we needed two routers on two different LANs. To do this, we connected each router to a Windows 98 PC and had each of them connected to the Internet via an ISDN BRI connection. Of course, we required an ISP which supports an ISDN BRI connection that can be allocated with StarGazer’s bandwidth-on-demand feature. We decided to borrow Pivotal’s ISP to connect (they gave us their account and password). Once we had the correct remote phone number to use, we had no problem bringing up the ISDN connection on one of the routers.

However, we could not bring up the ISDN connection of the second router, even though we were using the correct configuration settings. On a call to Pivotal’s technical support, we found out that the ISDN connection attempted to transmit the data, but it was never received on the ISP end. Luckily, Pivotal had heard about this problem with some of their U interface ISDN BRI routers and was in the last stages of creating a patch file for it. Literally, a few hours later, they finished the patch and we received the file, updated the router firmware, and tested to see whether or not this solved the problem. It did. However, it should be noted that when we rebooted that router, we had to reinstall the firmware in order for the ISDN connection to work again. But this should not present a problem once this file is permanently set in the gold release of the product.

Using the VoIP capability (StarVoice) was almost effortless. All we did was connect our phones to the analog ports of the routers, made sure that we checked the Internet Access with Advanced Configuration option on the customization screen of the Web-based interface, set up a speed-dial entry, and placed the call. The biggest problem we had was finding the remote IP address of the other router. We had to view the IP routing table of each router to find out its IP address. For static IP addresses, this doesn’t present too much of a problem because once you know the address of that particular router, it will always be the same. However, we were using DHCP, so every time we connected to the ISP, we had to find out what new address the ISP assigned. Obviously, this could become a pain to do every time you want to make a VoIP call. Once we were connected, the VoIP call was clear for the most part, even when we made another VoIP call to Pivotal’s office (a Connecticut-to-California call). As expected, there was a bit of delay from the time one of us spoke to when the other one on the call actually heard the words, but the delay was tolerable.

Creating an office-to-office VPN connection was also surprisingly easy. All we needed to do was make sure that the Internet access and the remote site options were checked on the customization screen of the Web-based interface and fill out some forms, including the VPN tunnel configuration and connection profile configuration screens (see Figure 4). With the help of the user’s guide, filling out these forms presented little difficulty. However, we must note that since we were configuring two routers at the same time, the router we weren’t working on timed out, so we had to keep logging back in to continue the configuration process. This became a bit annoying for us, and there was no way to configure the StarGazer 1800 router so that it would timeout at a slower rate.

When we finished configuring the routers for our VPN and applied the configuration successfully, we tested the VPN functionality. First, we pinged the local router’s IP address, assigned via the ISP, and then pinged the remote router. Obviously, the router we pinged over the Internet transmitted slower than the other. The slower transmission was a result of that router sending encrypted data across the Internet.

After that little exercise, we shared the C drives on the PCs, and were able to view files from both computers. Before we established a VPN connection, each PC was on its own LAN. When the VPN was established, both computer names were listed in the network neighborhood, so the PCs were now on the same LAN via the VPN connection across the Internet. We even opened a 300 KB file from the remote PC. It took about two minutes using one 64 Kbps connection, but it did open. If you want, you can also bond two B channels for a throughput of 128 Kbps.

There are a few improvements that we would recommend for when the StarGazer 1800 router becomes available on the market (which should be by the time this review is in print, in late August). First, the front light indicators are usually bright enough to be noticed, but in certain room atmospheres, the lights become dull. It would be nice to be able to see the light indicators in any room setting.

Second, we would like to be able to set the number of minutes before a StarGazer 1800 router times out. This way, we would not have to keep logging in if that particular router remains inactive for a short time. Third, for VoIP calls, users should not need to know the IP address of the router they are calling. Utilizing ActiveDirectory, LDAP, a gatekeeper, a ULS server, or other databases to keep track of IP address assignment would alleviate this requirement. This would make the configuration process for VoIP even easier than it already is. Users can just call the speed dial number and be relatively sure that the call will go through.

Our final suggestions involve security. A more advanced packet filtering method — a basic firewall using stateful inspection, would also serve a SOHO environment well. For more information on this, see our review of the Ascend SecureConnect Manager and Client Preview with Pipeline Family of Routers in the June issue of Internet Telephony. Also, another detailed screen on Pivotal’s Web-based interface that shows the encrypted data passing through the Internet would be helpful when an administrator monitors a VPN connection, and adding IPSec encryption would have value as well.

We bestow our Editors’ Choice Award to Pivotal’s StarGazer 1800 router for a number of reasons. The main reason is that the VoIP and VPN capabilities are quite impressive, especially because configuring them is so simple. Also, the Web-based interface is intuitive and easy to use, taking much of the frustration out of configuring and managing a router in a SOHO environment.

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