Why isn’t there a really good “network appliance” as a network gateway? You can get a low-end firewall/router, or you can build your own machine.
Setting up OpenBSD is no walk in the park, though. I want to build an “appliance” based on OpenBSD, and give it a nice spiffy web GUI. You buy the box, plug one side into your switch and one side into your cable modem or whatnot, and spend ten minutes in a web browser fine-tuning it. I was really fond of the appearance of the Cobalt Qube, although it could be made much smaller. And throw a nice LCD on the front with status. You can run a very low-power CPU, something like the one powering these. It really doesn’t need more than 512MB RAM, but give it a small solid-state drive. And a pair of Gigabit cards, not just for the speed, but because GigE cards usually are much higher-quality. In building routers, the quality of your card determines how hard the CPU has to work.
There’s so much that a router can do. You can run a transparent caching proxy, a caching DNS server, priority-based queuing of outgoing traffic (such as prioritizing ACKs so downloads don’t suffer because of uploads, or giving priority to time-sensitive materials such as games), NAT, an internal DHCP server, and, of course, a killer firewall. You can also generate great graphs of things such as bandwidth use, blocked packets, packet loss, latency…You can regulate network access per-IP or per-MAC, and do any sort of filtering you wanted. It could also easily integrate with a wireless network (maybe throw a wireless card in, too!), serving as an access point and enabling features like permitting only certain MACs to connect, requiring authentication, or letting anyone in but requiring that they sign up in some form (a captive portal). And I really don’t understand why worms and viruses spread so well. It’s trivial to block most of them at the network level if you really monitor incoming traffic.
I’m frankly kind of surprised that nothing of this level exists. I think there’s a definite market for quality routers. A $19 router does the job okay, but once you start to max out your connection, you’ll really notice the difference! A good router starts prioritizing traffic, so your ssh connection doesn’t drop and your game doesn’t lag out, but your webpages might load a little slower. An average router doesn’t do anything in particular and just starts dropping packets all over the place, leaving no one better off. (And a really bad router–our old one–seems to deal with a fully-saturated line not by dropping excess packets or using priority queueing, but by reboot itself, leaving everyone worse off… I think this may have had to do with the duct tape.)