A decade ago, suggesting that you would spend the next day workinge remote access. Tony Dennis looks at the issues behind installing a system. from home was taken as being an excuse for a day's free golfing. Today, few such political issues prevent employees from telecommuting or teleworking.
The real issues now lie with providing the right kind of remote access so that corporate users can enjoy exactly the same range of facilities they would gain from a desktop PC. Additionally, end users expect remote network access to be possible from a hotel bedroom, train or airport lounge - not just from the home or small branch office.
So it is no longer just a question of installing a few extra telephones and a modem pool plus a comms server and crossing your fingers. IT managers and directors have to carefully consider what kind of portable computer is most appropriate; what types of network connection should be provided; plus whether any applications that are portable aware need to be installed on the remote terminals.
There are a couple of common themes which run through all types of remote-access installations regardless of the physical connection: data throughput needs to be succinct and the solution needs to blend with existing applications - which in effect means that Internet/intranet compatibility is essential.
An August 1998 survey of US and European-based network executives carried out by IDC found that companies supporting more than 500 remote users were further along in the deployment of intranets than companies with fewer than 500 remote users. Additionally, more than 50% of such sites agreed that extending applications to remote users is driving their company toward using Web interfaces for new applications.
The same research revealed that the number of employees accessing LANs remotely grew from 27.6 % in 1997 to 32% in 1998. During 1999 the respondents predicted that number would reach 38.6% of employees enjoying remote LAN access.
Who exactly number among these growing legions of remote corporate workers?
Stephen Drake, an analyst at IDC's Intranet Networking architectures programme, described the typical remote worker as covering "day extenders, business travellers, mobile workers, telecommuters and branch office employees."
It is intriguing to see that even an old IT industry stalwart such as IBM has employed just the above kind of philosophy towards remote access.
The company's Pervasive Computing division, for example, has introduced its Mobile Connect solution, which is aimed squarely at handheld devices and is thus compatible with 3Com's Palm operating system (for the PalmPilot) or Windows CE-based machines.
On the applications support side, the product provides compatibility with Lotus Domino, Lotus Notes, ODBC databases such as DB/2 and even Microsoft Exchange.
Where IBM is unusual is that on the connectivity side it not only provides support for wireless data networks such as GSM but also for dial-up Internet.
IBM intends to support Mobile Connect through its Data Network Services division (which formerly offered Internet access via OS/2 Warp) from 1,300 POPs (Points of Presence) worldwide.
While IBM is currently looking at pilot trials for Mobile Connect with its existing customers, one of the first companies to try the software out in earnest has been DeTeLine in Germany - part of Deutsche Telekom.
DeTeLine has supplied handheld devices loaded with Mobile Connect and linking via GSM handsets to its field technical consultants. In turn, the devices have been able to access corporate e-mail and workgroup applications from virtually anywhere.
To tackle the succinct data issue, Naji Najjar, manager for mobile e-business solutions with IBM EMEA, maintains the system will carry only "raw" data since the Connect software effectively filters out any bandwidth-hungry items such as e-mail file attachments. He therefore anticipates that "the average user will only be spending between 12 to 16 minutes per day connected - less than most people spend talking (over GSM)."
Another benefit suggested by Najjar is that the system is designed to handle all the processing offline - for example, a user will fill out a report or a request on the handheld's screen before pushing the "connect" button. Najjar was insistent that IBM Connect fits easily into enterprise network strategies because the end user is not forced to change either e-mail systems or existing database servers.
IBM's approach appears to dovetail neatly with the direction currently pursued by comms hardware suppliers. TDK Systems technical director, Nick Hunn, pointed out that his latest offering, Global-Pulse for Palm (PalmPilot users), requires no additional interface hardware. Instead it can be used to connect via infra-red with one of the latest GSM phone such as the Nokia 6110 or the Ericsson 788.
Another company aiming to integrate a company's existing systems with mobile connectivity is Glasgow-based Graham Technology. According to Ian Valentine, a product manager with the company: "Traditionally, organisations have approached call centres, the Internet and mobile commerce as separate developments - often duplicating business logic and systems integration efforts." Valentine's company's solution is to supply the client software for its GT-X product to Palmtop Software - a software developer aiming at the Symbian/EPOC32 community.
The resulting software will allow portable computer users to synchronise their databases with any Internet-hosted online database technology - useful for wireless online banking, for example.
The intention here is to provide the widest range of portable devices with access to such data - not just PDAs like the latest Psion Series 5 and the forthcoming generation of intelligent GSM handsets from Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, which will be Symbian-based.
ISDN gains popularity
When it comes to providing a fixed remote LAN access, the overall consensus appears to be that ISDN-based solutions are increasing rapidly in popularity - particularly now that BT has started aggressively marketing ISDN with its Business/Home Highway offering.
According to Peter Cameron, a director with distributor Products to Europe, all the major suppliers of remote access hardware - such as Eicon, Digi and Interphase - have standardised on ISDN, mainly because it is such a scalable solution.
Enterprises can start off with a single PRI (Primary Rate Interface) ISDN card and be able to control 30 separate data channels these days for less than £1,000, Cameron says. He also points out that for the remote users an ISDN adaptor costs no more than a modem - often retailing for as little as £50.
Products to Europe maintains that while a few years back many industry observers would have lambasted Windows NT as the platform for a central communications server, research by the likes of IDC has shown that NT is currently proving very popular in this role.
However, while RAS (Remote Access Service) is effectively supplied free with Windows NT, Cameron claims NT RAS has a number of drawbacks. Chief among the missing facilities are the lack of comprehensive security and no viable means of managing remote users effectively. Hence, software house Acotec - which Cameron's company represents - has moved into the NT-based remote-access software sector from its original speciality in ISDN-based applications.
Acotec's offering for Remote Access Manager (RAM) enjoys a number of advantages over the standard Microsoft offering, including administration and monitoring of NT RAS via a Java-based browser. It also allows for remote administration of multiple servers as though they were one single unit. Naturally Acotec has configured its RAM server product to work with a wide range of ISDN and modem-based server cards. Prices for Acotec RAM start at around £150 for a two-user server, rising to around £2,110 for an unlimited version.
A good illustration of one way in which the issues surrounding remote access can be tackled is provided by NPI - perhaps better known previously as National Provident. The company offers financial services to the public through an army of advisers who are then themselves on the receiving end of a sales pitch from NPI's own account managers. There were three main criteria driving NPI's decision to give all of its 150 account managers laptop computers.
Firstly, the company wanted to improve communications with managers and reasoned this would be most effectively achieved through the introduction of e-mail.
The next aim was to provide each account manager with as much information about their respective independent financial advisers (IFAs) as possible.
This meant a complete database of client dossiers to be kept at head office with the most significant sections reproduced on the manager's laptop.
Lastly, each laptop was to be used as a sales tool, so that current presentation information could be distributed automatically to the entire sales force.
To implement these requirements NPI picked Sterling's Connect:Manage offering. One of the advantages is that the client software consumes a mere 300Kb of storage space so it can be deployed as an e-mail attachment sent to the end user.
The client software is even self-updating as new versions are released.
The communications side is handled by a Connect:Remote server which in NPI's case is situated at the company's head office in Tunbridge Wells.
This package initiates a call to each NPI account manager overnight and aims to keep connection times to a minimum in a number of ways. For example, it utilises offline compression caching as well as compression over live data sessions.
Tasks such as inventory scans can be scheduled to trigger offline so that only the collected data is sent during a communications session.
On the security side Connect:Manage authenticates users via groups defined in Microsoft NT Domains or alternatively using Novell's NDS (Novell Directory Services) for NT, plus there is an option to use data encryption. Prices for Connect: Manage start in the region of £4,075 for the server software while the cost per client licence works out at around £40 per head.
There are five main modules in the Connect:Manage family including the Application Manager which ensures that data required for transmission - held in Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes Mail, for example, is sent during a single communications session.
The software is also Internet friendly - automatically generating HTML code so that system management tasks can be triggered from Web pages, for example.
According to Kevin Denman, sales technology manager at NPI: "At our head office we may be doing all kinds of clever things with scripting, remote publishing, information sharing, database queries and postings, but the end users do not see that. All they need to do is plug in their PCs, click on an icon and they are away."
A feature within Connect:Manage which Denman has found particularly useful is the software's ability to detect out-dated versions of a particular document and then overwrite that file with the latest version. "Connect:Manage has been particularly valuable in helping us comply with the Financial Services Act," Denman added. "Anything we publish must (by law) be up to date with the current financial climate." This facility therefore ensures that NPIs account managers are always running the latest version of a presentation whenever they interact with a client.
The end-user hardware for remote access is definitely not the stumbling block for further market growth. Xircom, for example, has already shown modems small enough to fit Compact Flash (sub-PCMCIA) slots. The leading PC Card suppliers can all offer multiple functionality from a single device.
Prices for such products range from £200 to £500.
Psion Dacom's Gold Card offers the end user support for GSM, Ethernet, ISDN or modem, for example. So where is the current bottleneck? "The key hindrance is data throughput speeds," suggests Nabeel Mardi, marketing development manager with Psion Dacom. "GSM presently offers just 9.6Kbit/s but GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) with 384Kbit/s is just around the corner," he added. "Other technologies are contributing. Bluetooth (the wireless interface standard) will also help because end users won't have to carry so many cables around with them."
The general consensus therefore appears to be that while IT suppliers and network service suppliers - like BT - are gearing themselves up to promote remote access, the IT managers are also planning for it. The days of the remote user being tainted with the golf course stigma are well over.
MOBILE PC SELECTION
The typical notebook PC available from market leaders like Compaq, IBM and Toshiba is on par with a desktop PC in terms of processor power, memory, storage capacity and expandability. The only real difference is that notebook PCs are more expensive. Such products suit remote workers who travel occasionally. A sturdier, heavier luggable PC may be better suited to the task of a mobile presentation centre by offering both a floppy disk and a CD drive simultaneously. However, end users are beginning to question the necessity to carry round a notebook PC just to be able to access their e-mail remotely. The alternatives are therefore handheld PCs - running Windows CE, for example; PDAs like the Psion range and even intelligent mobile phones based on Symbian.
There is an increasingly popular view that the portable's native operating system is irrelevant - it is connectivity with a desktop PC and the quality of built-in e-mail software which matters more. Hence devices such as the 3Com PalmPilot and the Psion Series 5 are just as relevant to the corporate environment as a Microsoft Windows CE device.
Currently, Nokia's 9110 Communicator is about the only "intelligent phone" that fits the bill. However, the situation is due to change rapidly within the next six months as a whole spate of mobile phones with good Internet communications support become available.
MOBILE DATA NETWORKS
The easiest way of providing mobile data access is via one of the UK's four digital (GSM) networks. Not only does this work in the UK but the same hardware works in Continental Europe, in Commonwealth countries and now even in most major US cities.
The main disadvantage is the slow speed of connection - 9.6Kbit/s - although higher speeds including 14.4Kbit/s and 384Kbit/s are being promised. The cost derived from call duration times is often criticised - but then it is often cheaper than hooking a modem into a hotel bedroom phone. By contrast, there are national dedicated mobile data networks operated by the likes of Cognito, RAM Mobile Data and Dolphin. Only the latter supports voice as well as data so most end users would require both a data card and a mobile phone, so the cost advantage is often lost.
There is also the question of coverage - it is easy for remote users to tell whether a data connection would be available at a particular location because they already know whether or not their mobile phone gets a strong signal. Full Internet access may not always be necessary. GSM networks support a text messaging facility known as SMS (Short Message Service).
For example, it is possible to send e-mail message headers to a GSM phone using SMS.
This facility is catching on rapidly. Vodafone says it carried 15 million SMS messages in March 1999 - six times more than the previous year - and that 800,000 customers now regularly use the facility.
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