The Office at Large

by David Shcloss

Remote access systems allow business professionals to tap into their office’s network while on the road or at home. Still, they haven’t been implemented in most office systems. While Ethernet speeds reach the gigabit mark, many users are unable to access a company’s files even from just a stone’s throw from the office.

Traditional remote-access solutions have typically been too slow or too expensive to deploy, but the savvy small-business owner can take advantage of some recent developments to connect users anywhere. The recent ramp-up of DSL and Cable modems allows small offices to enjoy large-office connectivity at a fraction of the price, while a proliferation of wireless-enabled devices such as phones and PDAs brings wireless connectivity to regions with nothing more than a cell-phone tower.

Overhauling the Old Network
Harvey Golomb was in a bind. He’s the president of NETSCAN, a 23-person firm that tracks and publishes state, federal regulatory, and legislative developments for Fortune 2000 companies. NETSCAN operates out of three offices that rely on each other for a constant flow of data. It includes offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and Exton, Penn., and the company’s headquarters in Falls Church, Va.

“We have large data transfers in the order of 20 to 30 megabytes a day,” Golomb explains of the constant changes to the company’s massive custom database. “They produce and edit information in Florida, and then send it here to add to our database.”

Golomb felt that NETSCAN needed a more efficient way to connect the offices without incurring obscene charges. “The large transfer of data proved to be very inconsistent and time consuming,” he explains. “It took us on the order of an hour-and-a-half a day, much of it due to failed transfer attempts.” The FTP process also required that a staff member babysit the connection and restart it any time it was interrupted.

NETSCAN was faced with two choices; unreliable transfers via FTP (a protocol for sending large files over the Internet) or the installation of a virtual private network, or VPN. Golomb started to look around for a solution to the remote access bottleneck and discovered OpenReach, a VPN service provider. Golomb discussed his difficulties with Mark Tuomenoksa, CEO of OpenReach. Tuomenoksa observed that by combining the speed of an Internet connection, such as DSL or cable modem, with a system that required little end-user interaction, he could remove the obstacles to providing affordable VPN services.

A Light at the End of the tunnel
Essentially, a VPN is established over standard public Internet connections such as DSL or fractional T1. Much cheaper than a leased-line, a VPN resolves a number of issues but still costs too much to be practical for Netscan. VPNs usually require that each site run an Internet connection from the same provider. This was impossible for Netscan, since the different office locations precluded the company from access to even the same telephone companies.

OpenReach’s VPN runs on any 200Mhz or greater Pentium, meaning that many companies can simply pull an old computer out of a closet and turn it into a VPN gateway. It also runs across any network connection. Its software is easily installed into the PC so that OpenReach’s tech support staff can manage it remotely.

OpenReach monitors the client’s connection, upgrading the software, and adding new locations. “We have access to their NOC (Network Operations Center),” adds Golomb, explaining that OpenReach watches all the client’s connections to ensure they stay active. “A few times they have called to say, ‘Hey, did you know your Florida office is down?’ And we didn’t.”

The connection is transparent to NETSCAN. Each remote office shows up on its Windows 2000 client under the Network Neighborhood icon on the desktops.

“It takes about 15 minutes to transfer files now, and it is essentially error-free,” says Golomb. NETSCAN also uses the VPN to perform database synchronizations and document transfers between remote offices, and, best of all, Golomb says, “we’re only paying [about] $300 a month, total” for a level of remote access previously only available to large businesses.

Really Remote Access
ServiceLane is a company at the other end of the spectrum from NETSCAN. This contractor locating and scheduling firm relies on remote access in the truest sense. ServiceLane emerged as a home base for home exterior contractors to provide its services in several cities. Coordinating a fleet of factory-certified home improvement contractors in nearly half a dozen major markets offered a unique challenge. ServiceLane resolved the problem with the integration of wireless devices and customized Web-application servers.

Venkatesh Kumar, CTO of ServiceLane, explains that after a lead is qualified, it’s essential it gets to the contractor right away. “When somebody calls in, our staff will qualify the customer and schedule an appointment,” says Kumar. “Then a sales rep will go to a home and provide a quote on the spot.”

Kumar realized that it was going to be a difficult task to integrate communication between hundreds of contractors with their database-driven network applications. “The phone was not a good solution, because these guys are in the field,” he explains. “Even if you send them an e-mail, they probably check that once a day at most.” Kumar realized that most contractors carry pagers, and he enlisted the help of JP Mobile (formerly JP Systems) to develop a two-way pager application that could respond to queries and allow the contractors to act as remote clients.

“We built some XML layouts on our system so we could push the documents to the JP Mobile server,” says Kumar. “It packages the information and sends it out to a wireless device. The response comes back to our database, and there’s a seamless integration between the two.”

JP Mobile works with any wireless device, utilizing the company’s SureWave mobile server that allows enterprise employees and customers access to information from any location. For ServiceLane, JP Mobile rolled out solutions bundled with Motorola two-way pagers. All work was done by JP Mobile and Kumar says there have been no problems interfacing their network with the pagers.

Kumar feels that de-ployment of this technology will not only improve ServiceLane’s bottom line, but that of their contractors as well. “We use our solutions to offer scheduling, monitoring, and reporting services,” Kumar says. “These guys might run $10-million companies, but without the technology it’s going to be hard for them to grow into $100-million companies.”

Want to learn more about VPN technology? Contact these service providers:

JP Mobile develops network-and device-independent mobile technology that wirelessly enables Internet and Intranet applications. Price varies by services provided.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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