Remote—But Connected

How to link all your far-flung computers to the office.
BY RANDOLPH P. JOHNSTON

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
YOUR EMPLOYEES’ COMPUTER CONNECTIONS with the office can be as fast and reliable when they’re traveling or working in a remote location as when they’re in the office, and you can realize that goal without breaking your budget, compromising security or waiting for tomorrow’s technology.

THE SIMPLEST AND MOST ECONOMICAL way is to tap into the Internet, using a national dial-up Internet service provider (ISP). Since ISPs offer convenient dial-up access to the Internet via local telephone numbers in most parts of the country, an Internet connection would eliminate expensive long-distance toll charges.

REMOTE WORKERS CAN CHOOSE FROM several communication methods: the traditional voice telephone line, an integrated services digital network (ISDN), a high-speed phone line, a digital subscriber line (DSL), a cable modem and a two-way satellite. Each of these services can be enhanced with wireless service.

EVEN THOUGH YOU MAY USE a dial-up link—you risk being hacked. Either hardware or software firewalls can protect a single computer or an entire network from break-ins. Staffers who travel should always carry their own portable firewalls.

THE NEXT LINK IN THE SYSTEM— making the computers capable of talking to each other—can be satisfied by any of three approaches: a virtual private network, a Citrix MetaFrame Server or a Microsoft Terminal Server.

RANDOLPH P. JOHNSTON, executive vice-president of K2 Enterprises, Hutchinson, Kansas, is a technology consultant.
 
ould you like your employees to be able to remotely access your office computer no matter where they are, without a significant loss of speed or compromising security—and all this without breaking your budget or waiting for tomorrow’s technology?.
Read on, and you’ll discover how it can be done.

Let’s assume you want everyone on your staff to be able to work from anywhere in the country—from home, a hotel or a client site. There are many ways to achieve this, but the simplest and most economical method is to tap into the Internet with a national dial-up Internet service provider (ISP) such as Earthlink, CompuServe, AT&T or Microsoft Network.

Although the most convenient way to get everyone’s computer linked would be to use your own dial-up telephone connection—where anyone on your staff can just call directly into the office on a dedicated line—that approach would be very expensive. Not only would the long-distance charges be prohibitive but you would need to set up many phone lines—at least one for every 16 users.

THE TRAVELING USER

Since national ISPs offer dial-up access to the Internet via local telephone numbers in most parts of the country, an ISP Internet connection would eliminate toll charges. ISPs cost between $20 and $30 a month for unlimited use. For the traveling staffer the only drawback would be speed: Such connections would likely be at a theoretical maximum transmission rate of 56 kilobytes per second (Kbps), which typically translates to an effective speed of between 33 and 45 Kbps. That rate is acceptable for transmission of most office data, but as you shall see, much faster options are available for those who work outside the office but from fixed locations.

If a member of your staff happens to be working at a rural location that lacks local ISP access, you can rent a toll-free number for about $6 an hour. Staffers working out of hotels certainly can connect to an ISP via regular phone lines, but many hotels have recently added an extra service: the option of broadband (the techie term for high-speed capability) access to the Internet—rates that are two to three times that of regular phone lines. The fee for such a service is about $10 a day, and if your staff frequents a hotel, consider negotiating a discounted annual fee.

THE AT-HOME USER

So far so good for the traveling staffers. What about the telecommuters who work from home or from some fixed location outside the office? They have these options:

Traditional voice telephone line. The technical term for this mode is asynchronous analog. Maximum speed, as explained above, is 56 Kbps, but its effective speed is slower. A telephone hookup costs about $40 a month and ISP service runs about $20 a month. While the ordinary voice phone is available everywhere and it’s the least expensive of all the options listed below, it has the drawback of being the slowest.

Integrated services digital network (ISDN). This high-speed (128 Kbps) digital phone line costs about $90 a month for the line plus $30 a month for the ISP service. The connection is continuous; there is no need to dial in.

Until recently, ISDN was a very good option; however, its popularity is fading because, at a transmission rate of only 128 Kbps, it’s being superseded by cheaper and faster competitors (see DSL below).

ISDN is sold as a service, called basic rate interface (BRI), with a two-channel link (one voice link and one data link or two data or two voice) to the Internet. Further, the service is offered in two forms—measured and unmeasured. Measured service usually provides a base number of service hours per monthly billing period (typically five), and use above five hours is billed at about $6 an hour. If the user forgets to disconnect a measured service, the large bill can be an unpleasant surprise. Today most vendors offer measured service: unmeasured ISDN typically charges a flat rate for unlimited use. I recommend unmeasured service at a flat rate wherever possible.

When ISDN is installed, there will be an installation fee and you will have to buy an ISDN terminal adapter (modem) or router.

Digital subscriber line (DSL). This telephone company service is beginning to replace ISDN because it’s faster. A home version rents for $25 to $70 a month. The link also is continuous; no dial-up necessary. A business version costs $30 to $200 a month.

DSL speeds vary from 256 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps. A typical DSL line speed would download to your computer at 1.5 Mbps and upload (sent from your computer) at 384 Kbps. So, as you can see, DSL provides as much as 10 times the speed for as little as a third the cost of ISDN.

I generally recommend using any of the local Bell operating companies as a DSL provider, although in the past few years several good competitive national companies have surfaced—New Edge Networks ( www.newedgenetworks.com ), for example. To check on all the available DSL service providers in your area, go to www.dslreports.com .

When DSL lines are used for the Internet, it’s assumed the service is asymmetric DSL (aDSL)—that is, the transmission is one-way. Symmetric DSL (sDSL), which usually costs a premium, is two-way: It can send and receive simultaneously, and both upload and download speeds are the same.

Both the asymmetric and symmetric DSL services provide one or more static (fixed) Internet protocol (IP) addresses. That’s important because without that capability, you cannot configure Internet services such as firewalls, virtual private networks (VPN) or Lotus Notes or Citrix servers (more on those technologies below).

Cable. This is the same technology that’s used for cable television. It provides transmission speeds of from 1 to 10 Mbps and rents for between $30 and $60 a month.

Cable service is very cost-effective for home-based workers. Monthly charges vary from $25 to $40 for home use and $30 to $120 for businesses. Speeds vary by marketplace and provider, but commonly they are between 1 and 10 Mbps. The disadvantage of most cable offerings is their lack of a static IP address; however, if cable is used as a connecting link to the office, this is not a problem.

If you have a choice between a DSL and cable modem, I recommend DSL because it offers static IP addresses as well as superior support service. Unlike cable, DSL may also provide more consistent speed when additional subscribers are added in your locale.

Two-way satellite. If neither of these two high-speed products is available, a third connection option is two-way satellite, which requires the installation of an outside dish antenna. Satellite service has been commercially available since January 2001 and has been remarkably reliable.

One satellite drawback: Because the signal must travel between your earth-based antenna and the satellite’s antenna, there is a discernible and, for many, an irritating signal lag of about six seconds on average.

On the plus side, many satellite services are especially good when used for Web browsing. Reason: Many satellite services use caching (downloaded data are stored in a buffer on its servers) for Web pages, so when you seek access to a Web site, you download it directly from the service’s cached site; you don’t have to wait to download it from the original Web provider.

The bottom line is that satellite service is not as fast as cable or DSL, but it beats dial-up service and works adequately for two-way remote communication. For more information on these services, go to www.dslreports.com and www.getspeed.com .

Wireless service. While wireless connection speed is currently about half that of a traditional phone line, the added convenience of not being tethered to a wall socket can make up for that loss. Keep in mind that wireless technology is relatively new, and major speed improvements are likely in the period ahead.

To see which wireless service providers cover your geographic area, check in at www.compaq.com/products/wireless/wwan/ipaqnet_cov.shtml .

Dedicated data line. Such transmission lines are available from telephone utilities. This service is slow (56 Kbps) and expensive: $300 a month for the line and $150 a month for the ISP.

T1 line. While it’s fast (1.5 Mbps), it’s also expensive: $800 a month for the transmission line and $200 a month for the ISP.

The bottom line: Each of these communication modes can be used for the home office, but clearly the dedicated phone line and the T1 line are too expensive in most cases. So the five best choices are asynchronous analog, ISDN, DSL, cable and satellite.

SAFE FROM HACKERS

Once you’ve decided on your connection mode, you must consider security. One of the Internet facts of life is that if you’re connected, even through a dial-up link, you risk being hacked—an electronic break-in. The solution is a firewall, which can be either hardware or software. Since hardware firewalls provide more security than software products, I generally recommend the hardware option for most business applications.

Firewall installation is easy in most cases. Even moderately computer literate people can install many of these products in less than half an hour. However, if after a half-hour you’re not successful—especially when you’re trying to add a firewall to a DSL system—seek professional IT help or call the vendor’s support lines.

Leading hardware firewall vendors include SonicWall ( www.sonicwall.com ), LinkSys ( www.linksys.com ), 3Com ( www.3com.com ) and Intel ( www.intel.com ). A typical firewall for home or small office costs between $200 and $700. Going for the lower price, oddly enough, does not sacrifice safety, ease of use or ease of installation. When buying hardware firewalls, be sure their software (yes, they need software, too) can be upgraded because hackers keep getting smarter and the software should be improved apace.

The most sophisticated firewalls for offices, which are faster and have more capabilities than the products mentioned above, cost between $2,000 and $9,000, although units for offices with fewer than 50 users may cost under $700. Again, more expensive is not necessarily better and is often more difficult to install. For example, a SonicWall Pro, which costs about $2,200, is effective for a typical CPA office or small business and can support up to 1,000 users. In addition, it has features such as content filtering (blocking certain incoming messages), virus scanning and the ability to accommodate a virtual private network (VPN).

Internet users who travel a lot should carry their own portable firewall. One effective product is the SonicWall Telecommuter, which is the size of a videocassette and snaps in between the laptop and the phone line. Good software firewalls include Norton Internet Security Suite ( www.symantec.com ), BlackIce Defender ( www.networkice.com ) and ZoneAlarm ( www.zonelabs.com ).

Caveat: Software firewalls sometimes trigger irritating, but not fatal, computer problems. For example, they’ve been known to arbitrarily disconnect an Internet connection, forcing the user to dial in again. Important: These products must be upgraded periodically.

SHARING INFORMATION

The next link in the system—making the computers capable of talking to each other—can be satisfied by any of three approaches: a virtual private network (VPN), a Citrix MetaFrame Server ( www.citrix.com ) or a Microsoft Terminal Server ( www.microsoft.com ). Although each works differently, they produce the same result—providing a communications channel through which all your computers can “talk” with each other, sharing both files and applications.

Virtual private networks: A VPN allows you to connect your local area network (LAN) and your mobile workers as if they were all on one big (virtual) network so they can share applications, data and even printers.

Using a combination of hardware and software to encrypt one or more communication paths, called pipes, they can carry your private data over the public Internet lines. Because VPNs use the Internet, the link is economical, and because it uses encryption, the data are secure.

Setting up a VPN is relatively easy; you probably won’t have to engage a computer specialist. In fact, if you’ve purchased hardware for either a firewall or a router (hardware that directs data from one LAN or wide area network to another), you may already have the necessary software and hardware to set up a VPN. But if you don’t have either a router or a firewall, you can buy stand-alone VPN hardware and software from any of the major computer communications vendors—Cisco, 3Com, Lucent, to name three large ones. VPN software licenses cost from $30 to $100 per user; a 10-user package costs about $300 and a 50-user package about $700. VPNs can also be implemented in software on individual computers—not just on networks.

Be sure the VPN software you buy meets an Internet security standard called IPSEC version 6 (Internet Protocol Secure), a relatively new VPN compatibility standard that provides security and ensures it will operate with the other hardware and software on your system.

The Windows operating system (from the 1998 version onward) has VPN software built in. Although it’s free, it’s often about a third the speed of other VPN products.

Citrix: Like VPN, a Citrix Meta-Frame system allows remote workers or staff in a geographically separate office to use the office network transparently—that is, they can work as if they were all on the same network.

For a comprehensive article on Citrix, see “Get Remote Computer Access—and Save,” JofA , Dec.00, page 71.

A Citrix setup has advantages over a VPN. It’s flexible: It can run applications off large servers in the main office while individual users can run it on their workstations. Further, it can handle users on several different operating systems—Apple OS, UNIX and most of the Windows platforms.

For some users, the biggest advantage is economy: Citrix can often eliminate or reduce the need to upgrade local workstations; it needs less expensive workstations (called “thin client terminals”) and allows remote users to run at high speeds even over dial-up lines.

For a five-user system, hardware and software total costs come to about $6,000; a 12-user system is about $18,000.

Microsoft Terminal Server: The third option is the Microsoft system. However, I don’t recommend it for several reasons. Compared with Citrix, it’s slower and provides less security. In addition, it doesn’t control printers as well.

THE RIGHT TOOLS

Remote workers today can work as effectively at home or on the road as they can in the office if they have the right communications tools. Fortunately, the right tools now cost less than $100 a month in most cases, and initial capital investment is less than $1,000 per user—an affordable price for most organizations.

SPONSORED REPORT

How to make the most of a negotiation

Negotiators are made, not born. In this sponsored report, we cover strategies and tactics to help you head into 2017 ready to take on business deals, salary discussions and more.

VIDEO

Will the Affordable Care Act be repealed?

The results of the 2016 presidential election are likely to have a big impact on federal tax policy in the coming years. Eddie Adkins, CPA, a partner in the Washington National Tax Office at Grant Thornton, discusses what parts of the ACA might survive the repeal of most of the law.

QUIZ

News quiz: Scam email plagues tax professionals—again

Even as the IRS reported on success in reducing tax return identity theft in the 2016 season, the Service also warned tax professionals about yet another email phishing scam. See how much you know about recent news with this short quiz.