At least 25 million Americans telecommute on a regular basis, according to the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC). A study by marketing research firm Cahners In-Stat Group indicates that 19 million telecommuters have Internet access and are therefore potential users of virtual private networks (VPNs).
If you’re a typical IT manager, there are days when you feel like all 19 million are trying to use your company’s VPN at the same time — and they’re all calling your help desk to complain about connection problems. Many times during my years as an IT professional, I could have sworn VPN stood for Very Problematic Nightmare.
Popularity Unveils Limitations
It’s not the fault of the VPN, really. The capability to deploy a private data network over the public telecommunication infrastructure — the existing telephone or internet lines — is an enterprise enabler and cost-saver that has simply become too popular for its own good.
A survey by the online job board TrueCareers found that 65 percent of respondents either currently telecommute or plan to, and that 35 percent of current telecommuters spend at least half the work week at home, enjoying the flexibility, productivity and freedom from rush-hour commuting. Nearly three-fourths of telecommuters surveyed say they are more productive at home than at the office, in large measure because of the time they save by not driving to work.
Not all the incentive for the surge in telecommuting comes from workers — ITAC estimates that employers save $10,000 a year per teleworker in reduced absenteeism and other costs. VPN has become a standard for both corporate extranets and wide-area intranets, and tech giants such as Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard are telling their people to stay home — and get to work.
The problem is that VPNs have technological limitations, both in performance and security. VPNs can disconnect or slow to a dead crawl during major file downloads or e-mail attachment transfers. They can hang in heavy traffic situations — just when they’re most needed. They can be accessed only through remote devices that have been set up and loaded for the purpose.
VPNs are a security nightmare, because each remote user and each remote machine is a potential chink in the enterprise armor. If a company has 100 remote users, it has 100 exposed entry points into its enterprise network. The standard security measures, namely data encryption and point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP), are a long way from foolproof.
Also, many VPNs also have less-than-unlimited capabilities — they give the remote user access to the enterprise network, but not to the data stored on the individual desktop in the office. Leading analyst firms estimate that 60 percent of all mission-critical enterprise data is stored not in enterprise data centers but in the desktop and laptop computers of the company’s employees. To give remote users access to that data that makes them most productive, a VPN must allow them unsecured entry into the network, and their desktop machines must be on and connected to the internet — an extreme risk to the security of the network.
How Virtual Workstations Work
If you live in the IT world, none of this comes as news to you. But what may come as news is the emergence of a new technology called virtual workstation that addresses many of the weaknesses and frustrations of the VPN. The virtual workstation solution, a combination of hosted software and enterprise application, both consolidates and expands the VPN to make it more powerful and more secure.
Virtual workstation leverages synchronization technology and secure servers to provide remote users with instant, total, secure access to not only the enterprise network but the user’s own desktop computer and all its documents and applications. The user logs in through via any Internet connection with any linked device — PC or Mac, laptop or handheld — and is presented with a perfect, completely functional replica of his own office desktop.
The solution literally brings the office to the user and provides instantaneous, 24/7 access to mission-critical data — both documents and applications, even applications not loaded on the device in use — with or without the availability of a VPN or corporate LAN. Security becomes a far less critical issue, because the technology reduces the number of access points from many to one.
The virtual workstation solution also essentially eliminates the frustrating issue of slow transfer speeds over 56Kbps dial-up modem connections. Opening a large document through a VPN dial-up connection can take ten minutes or more, and that’s dead time for the remote employee. With a virtual workstation, that same document will open in a matter of seconds, no matter how slow the connection, so your company doesn’t have the pick up the tab for a high-speed connection to keep the telecommuter at full productivity.
Synchronization provides the backup-recovery side of the equation. All documents saved on the “virtual workstation” are simultaneously updated and saved on the office desktop, and vice versa. That automatic backup presents a critical value proposition to any enterprise by preventing massive financial losses from lost data. Unless you’re extremely lucky, your IT department has gotten too many despairing phone calls from bereft employees wailing about wayward laptops. Thousands of laptops are lost or stolen every year.
That’s a brutally expensive catastrophe that involves far more than just replacing the device. The 2001-2002 Computer Security Institute/FBI Computer Crime & Security Survey says the average financial loss to the enterprise for each lost laptop is a staggering $89,000. Since most laptops cost around $2000, obviously the overwhelming proportion of that loss is related to the data itself. The loss of the intellectual property on a laptop — reports, client lists, meeting notes or research data — can mean lost clients and wasted work efforts. And that data is costly to replace.
That problem essentially disappears with the deployment of the virtual workstation solution. With all data backed up on secure servers, a lost device doesn’t mean lost information. A replacement device can be reloaded in an hour or so and the mobile worker is back at full speed — deeply grateful, of course, to the IT department.
VPN Demands Will Get Heavier
If you’ve looked ahead, you know that the burden of supporting a network of remote workers and remote machines is only going to increase for your IT people. The aforementioned Cahners In-Stat study projects that 40 million people will be telecommuting by 2004.
If your company is typical, more than a third of your employees will be depending on your VPN. Virtual workstation technology offers the promise of a more productive and more secure VPN solution with far fewer IT support and maintenance issues to handle. Virtual workstation is a revolutionary way of “thinking outside the box” — the box, in this case, being the four walls of the company — and it’s changing the shape of the business world itself for the mobile enterprise and its ever-increasing mobile workforce.
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