Remote access technology, which enables access to central systems from home, portable computers and branch offices, is in the unusual position of being in the right place at the right time, as its growing popularity shows.
First there is the business need. Kevin Bulcock, connectivity product manager at distributor Ideal Hardware, says: "Five or six years ago, what drove the remote access market was the need for external salespeople to have access to information. There has been a much wider change in working practices. Now the thinking is why drive two hours to work and back when you can work at home and use those two hours productively?"
All staff may now be required to work remotely, from company directors, consultants and sales executives to call centre agents, accounts clerks and service engineers. Even smaller businesses are increasingly becoming interested in the technology. Some companies are redesigning their business processes to enable or encourage their employees to work remotely. These range from home-based service engineers to financial advisers who complete their paperwork in the field, instead of returning to the office between visiting clients.
No longer a luxury
Remote access technology has also become cheaper and more accessible, says Jonathan Wagstaffe, managing director of networking and remote access reseller Connectology. "It was seen as a luxury item four or five years ago," he says. "The equipment has become cheaper and more reliable, and more applications are designed for remote access, so the technology has become much more popular."
Going online is acting as both a driver and an enabler of remote access. Increased reliance on email, data warehouses, shared diaries and so on means that no one can afford to be left out of the loop for long. But it also means that the technology and expertise are there to connect remote users more easily, and users are experienced enough to use it.
There is no clear pattern to who uses remote access; it cuts across all sizes and sectors of business, from legal practices and estate agents with partners working from home, to telecoms giants supporting thousands of call centre agents in the field instead of in centralised offices.
Small and medium-sized businesses are a big growth market. Being largely new to remote access, they often have more to gain than corporates that are merely upgrading existing links. Newer companies may be more innovative and can see the benefits of remote working and inter-office communication more clearly. The education market could also explode, if efforts to promote 'anytime, anyplace' learning get off the ground.
The unmetered effect
Advances in technology are equally significant. According to Ian Kilpatrick, group managing director of distributor Wick Hill, unmetered internet access will encourage smaller businesses and teleworkers to maintain permanent internet connections, which could also be used for remote access. "The biggest issue in connectivity at the moment is cost. If, for example, a permanent connection costs only £1 a day, a lot more businesses will do it," he says.
Newer, high-bandwidth technologies such as asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) will also be a big driver of remote access. BT's ADSL rollout begins this summer - somewhat belatedly, some observers say - with a 512Kbps link and 256Kbps return path, using existing copper cabling and customers' existing telephone numbers. ISDN, by contrast, needs new cabling and numbers, and has only a quarter of the bandwidth.
ADSL is also unmetered, and could help drive down the cost of all remote access services, if customers can get it. The initial rollout will cover only about a third of the UK population, rising to 70 per cent by the end of 2001.
James Dell, a director at systems management consultancy and reseller Parallel, is near the back of the queue. Parallel's local exchange in Bedford will be one of the last to receive ADSL, even though the exchange next door, Milton Keynes, will be one of the first. "The things that mainly hinder ADSL are the phone companies and network franchisees," says Dell. "Everyone's just waiting for it to be switched on. A lot of our customers want to use it."
Mobile phone bandwidths are also creeping up. Orange is launching a 28.8Kbps service this month (the standard GSM data rate is a paltry 9.6Kbps), and ISDN-equivalent speeds are promised soon. In future, high-bandwidth mobile services will also be unmetered.
However, Wap, the current hot technology for accessing web pages over mobile phones and handheld devices, is less likely to set fire to the remote access market. The technology remains too fiddly to use, and is really intended for light use and reading other companies' websites, not for read/write access to your own company's networks.
VPNs take centre stage
The most important new technology is the virtual private network (VPN), which uses the internet as a cheap alternative to private leased lines for connecting branch offices, and even individual remote or home workers, to head-office networks. Secure 'tunnel servers' at either end of the link encrypt all VPN traffic, creating a secure tunnel through the internet.
Unlike a traditional leased line-based private network, a VPN can be accessed from any computer that can create a secure internet connection, which appeals particularly to corporates.
Bob Honour, solutions marketing manager at network vendor 3Com, itself a committed VPN user, says: "In the next couple of years, the remote access market will change dramatically as many businesses move towards VPN connections. As long as finance directors are made aware of the savings, they will adopt them."
Although leased lines can still be good value for heavily-used, high-bandwidth connections, the savings from VPNs make for startling reading. One company replaced a £250,000-per-year leased line to the US with a £20,000-a-year VPN connection.
VPNs have been 'just around the corner' for about four years. But the price of VPN services has tumbled by up to two-thirds since last year, to the point where supporters of the technology are even claiming that VPNs are "priced for deployment".
Steven McAdam, sales manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at VPN vendor Indus River, believes implementation usually follows a set pattern. "First they look at the boxes, and compare speeds, feeds and the standards supported. Then they decide on a tunnel server and try to attach it to their network, which can show up a lot of routing issues that they did not know they had. They then roll out to a pilot group of users, and finally to all of their remote users."
Is it safe?
Security remains a major concern for customers, not least at the client end, where a permanently-connected PC on an unmetered link could make the parent system very vulnerable indeed. "There isn't a lot of customer confidence in seeing traffic going over any kind of publicly-accessible network," says Dell.
This attitude could now be changing. "Most remote access is still traditional point-to-point. But there is a lot of interest in VPN, and when we install solutions for customers, they are being designed for VPN in the future," says Wagstaffe.
Even smaller businesses are beginning to take an interest in VPNs, with companies with as few as 25 remote users now seriously considering it. At the other end of the scale, the terminal emulation market offers huge potential, with up to six million terminal connections still operating in the UK, many of them from smaller branch offices. With so much opportunity in the remote access market, resellers would be very foolish not to take advantage.
If they do not provide remote access, regular customers may go elsewhere. "If you are a network reseller and do not offer a remote access solution, you are leaving a big hole in your business," warns Wagstaffe.
Ideal's Bulcock believes the successful resellers will be those that offer a so-called soup-to-nuts service. "The resellers that win on remote access are the ones that provide a full service; from initially planting the idea in the customer's mind through to final rollout and implementation," he says.
Knowledge is power
The client end of the system - the remote computer or branch office - is fairly straightforward. An understanding of the technology and integration with the central network is required. "If you can handle the central side, then you will own the business at the remote end," says Bulcock. "Good remote access resellers are the ones that know operating systems and networking back to front. When users are dialling in, everything is focused onto something like an NT remote access server. It is an absolute prerequisite to have someone who is very good with NT, because getting the central side up and running is crucial."
Integration skills are key, because many customers want a single network infrastructure for their internal, external and remote access networks. This may extend worldwide, so a knowledge of satellite and other wireless technologies may be needed.
Indus River is currently trying to recruit more value-added resellers (Vars). "The Vars we are targeting are very skills-oriented," says McAdam. "They need to have a good understanding of integration and security, and to be able to handle a customer's public key infrastructure integration strategy in two years' time."
A shortage of skills
Such all-round skills are proving harder to find in medium-sized Vars, although McAdam argues he "cannot start educating Vars about other products before they get to ours". Business skills are also important. "Many of the conversations we are having with our customers are increasingly about business and not technology," says Wagstaffe. "Customers always look to us to make things happen for them."
Bulcock adds: "A lot of resellers still do not see the full opportunities, and are still too focused on the boxes. Do you say to the customer, 'this is a modem'? Or do you say, 'this will enable you to double your business next year, because you won't be so stressed and wasting so much time in traffic jams, and you won't be spending so much time in the office'?"
However, Kilpatrick believes resellers are not intimidated by remote access. "We sell as much through broadband resellers as niche players," he says. "Now that a VPN and firewall can cost £475, it has to run straight out of the box."
Bulcock estimates that, on a larger deal, about 40 per cent of a remote access sales may be product-related, while the remainder consists of services, installation and consultancy. Margins are higher than on the standard networking services. "A modem in a box only earns a single-figure margin," he says. "But a reseller selling a remote access solution can make 20 to 30 per cent on the hardware, and 40 per cent on services."
Other distributors and vendors quote similar figures, saying the opportunity for repeat business is significant. "It's a breeder technology," says Kilpatrick. "Companies deploy a pilot, then they come back for more. Whatever you put in your pocket, as long as you do not mess up, you'll be adding to year on year. It's heading back to the golden age of high volumes and high margins."
Predators on the prowl
With such rich pickings on offer, remote access resellers cannot expect to have this growing market all to themselves. The competition is becoming much more intense, while predators from outside the conventional channel home in.
Mobile phone giants such as Vodafone have begun to offer services such as VPN, while terrestrial managed service providers are eyeing remote access. "There will be competition between managed service providers and resellers for their customer relationships, although it will be at least 12 to 18 months before things change," says Kilpatrick.
But for the most part, managed service providers seem more interested in big corporate systems with at least 500 remote users, where they can sell plenty of lines and bandwidth. If they do try to enter the resellers' space, they may find customers are less than anxious to buy.
"Customers want to own their VPN, so they can gauge the quality of service, but they cannot do this if their service provider handles everything," says McAdam. "A quality of service agreement means nothing if you cannot really measure it. There is demand for managed services, but I think it will be product Vars that move up to provide it and help customers manage their relationships with their internet service providers."
As long as resellers have good long-term relationships with their customers, they should gain from the growing demand for remote access and VPNs. The remote access market is growing faster than the competition, and as more businesses wake up to the benefits, this is likely to continue.
- Demand for remote access is strong, thanks to the growth of mobile and home working, the increasing use of online technologies and growing interest among smaller companies
- Remote access is becoming cheaper, with technologies such as VPNs halving in price within a year
- Unmetered internet access and broadband technologies such as ADSL will create even more demand
- VPNs are expected to take over remote access business as security concerns diminish
- Remote access resellers need a mixture of networking, integration and security skills, especially for the central end of the system
- Margins of 30 per cent are common, and repeat business opportunities are good, making remote access a lucrative area of business.
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