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There are products designed for big enterprises and products designed for small offices, and never the two shall meet, right? Well, not so fast. While it’s true that most small offices don’t need and can’t afford million-dollar enterprise hardware and systems, many large enterprises are finding that cheap but capable devices designed for the SOHO market can be effective for meeting many of their needs.

I used to be surprised when I visited a company and saw cheap consumer devices being used. Not anymore. From Netgear routers adding quick and dirty additional networking to cheap no-name workgroup storage servers to countless D-Link and Linksys wireless access points, small office/home office devices can be found throughout some of the biggest enterprises.

And why not? This equipment usually works as well as the enterprise variety and usually for a fraction of the cost.

Look at wireless. Most companies that were first movers in wireless used inexpensive access points from vendors such as Linksys and D-Link. Then, when they began to look at enterprise options, they found little or no difference between those and the gear intended for the home. In fact, SOHO devices tend to be first to adopt new technologies and advances, leaving those who stick to enterprise options behind the curve. And when you take into account that a typical SOHO access point is priced about $100, while an enterprise access point can run anywhere from $800 to $2,000, the decision becomes obvious.

Yes, there are drawbacks to many low-end devices. They don’t tend to last as long as enterprise hardware, and they are not supported by their vendors to the same extent that enterprise hardware is.

But most of these devices are designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind. If support is needed, it is usually when something breaks. Given the low cost of these devices, why even bother with support? Just pull a backup out of the closet and replace the broken device.

Sure, you probably don’t want to use SOHO devices and appliances to handle mission-critical systems. But how many of your applications are, in fact, mission-critical? If a part of your wireless network goes down for an hour or so, is that really a big problem?

One major reason so many of these devices can be found in enterprises is the recent technology bust. With IT budgets pared to the bone, many IT administrators have had to make do. Getting permission to buy a few hundred-dollar devices is a lot easier than getting tens of thousands of dollars in IT expenses approved.

Another reason we see so many of these devices in enterprises is common sense. If they work, why not use them? Also, IT workers use many of these devices at home and have become comfortable and experienced with them.

The increased use of Linux and open source in the enterprise also plays a part in the acceptance of inexpensive SOHO devices. Most, if not all, of these devices use a form of embedded Linux as their operating system. And if a company is OK using a free OS to run its biggest servers, that company is probably also comfortable using an inexpensive device based on the same OS to run less-critical IT tasks.

Many enterprise vendors will tell you that these devices won’t work in enterprise environments, and, in some cases, they’ll be right. After all, you wouldn’t want to use a hundred-dollar SOHO router as the main router on your company network.

But in plenty of other cases, these SOHO products are every bit as good as the enterprise options, which often use the same underlying technology but are priced higher because the enterprise vendor couldn’t bring itself to price its products below a certain point.

So, the next time you’re dealing with a new IT requirement, you might want to ask yourself, “Do I really need to spend thousands of dollars to do this—or can I spend hundreds and get the same results?” Don’t be surprised to find that cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza’s e-mail address is