Nearly two years ago, my house caught on fire and everything but the outside walls had to be gutted and rebuilt. But from every disaster emerges silver linings - and indeed, we discovered many.One of those was the ability to minimize and consolidate - fewer toys, clothes, electronics, and indeed, IT infrastructure. With four school-age children and two work-at-home parents, computers, printers, and scanners were all-too-plentiful in our home.So we installed Category 3 and Category 5 cabling throughout the house and put in a small \u201cserver room\u201d that houses and protects all the electronics and IT infrastructure. We reduced the number of printers, termination devices, and Internet access lines. And we now spend very little time troubleshooting IT problems.Why? There simply are fewer devices and connections that can have problems now.That\u2019s one of the huge benefits of consolidated networking gear for branch offices. With the explosion of branch offices (91% of all employees, on average, work in a branch location, whether large or small), the functions inherent in a variety of products are necessary at each site.Products, including multifunction routers, services gateways and unified threat management (UTM) devices, provide many of the tasks without wrapping a box around each one. Rather than having separate boxes for switching (voice and data), routing, intrusion-detection, and network optimization, these products provide some or all of these functions (and even more) in a single device.Why does that matter? The median number of devices at a branch office is six. That means IT staffs are installing, managing, and troubleshooting six devices (and the links to them) at dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of branch-office locations. Reducing the number of devices offers several benefits, including reduced space requirements, small number of physical devices to manage\/install, and fewer product lines to learn and program.Services gateways morphed from and improved upon multifunction routers, while unified threat management devices focus squarely on combining security functions, such as firewalling, anti-virus, and intrusion detection - and even content filtering and anti-spam.Multifunction routers are available from vendors such as Cisco, Juniper and Enterasys. Services gateways are available from vendors including Net Devices and Nortel. And Fortinet, Internet Security Systems, and Zyxel offer UTM devices. (Many other vendors are in these spaces, too, which we\u2019ll explore in the coming weeks.)I\u2019ll be devoting the next few columns to these types of products and provide some detail about their benefits and disadvantages, including detailed cost analyses. Stay tuned to discover how these types of products can help reduce the clutter in your branch offices.