Teleworking Part II: High-end tools make e-workers feel less remote

14 Sep 2004

In the early days of the internet there seemed to be something almost magical about being able to dial into your office network from a remote access point and watch files transfer to and from your local machine. The cutting-edge of security meant the server dialled you back at your remote location, which ruled out any concept of flexible working — it was working from home or nothing.

As the internet became ubiquitous in the late Nineties, virtual private networks (VPNs) began to appear. These secure products use data encryption to create a virtual tunnel between you and your office systems over the internet. Suddenly all you needed was an internet connection and you could have secure access to your office applications. The problem was that VPNs were notoriously difficult to manage and remote users typically needed lots of support.

“The availability of VPN concentrators in the past couple of years has made a big difference,” says Karl McDermott, systems engineering manager with Cisco. “They have simplified the management of VPN connections considerably. “

With a VPN infrastructure in place, secure access to corporate data can be given to all remote workers. If they have access to a high-speed internet connection they should also be able to work with the same applications on the local area network (LAN) as they do when they are in the office.

The rise of internet protocol (IP) telephony, which converges telephone and computer systems, has been a boon for teleworkers. Rather than using an IP handset, a software-based phone can be loaded on the user’s laptop. As soon as the phone is connected back to the corporate network over the internet, all the user’s calls will be routed to their laptop. Calls can be made and received with the aid of a wired or wireless headset connected to the sound card on the notebook.

“It’s very important you don’t suffer any degradation in services if you are working from home,” says McDermott. “You want the exact same telephony features that you would have in the office.”

The big issue for some users is that with calls transferring across the internet there is no guarantee of call quality. “You can create calls over the internet but people need to be aware of what that involves,” says John Sharpe, a director of Avaya Ireland. “You certainly wouldn’t want to call at the same time as when you are downloading a big application.”

Collaboration tools also come into their own for those who spend a large amount of their time working at home or at another location that is remote from the office. Sharpe points to Avaya’s Unified Communication platform that allows users to engage in a conference that combines voice, video, data, web and application sharing.

“The users can dial in and have a proper bridged audio conference — you can have up to 50 or 60 users if you want,” says Sharpe. “All the participants can also engage in instant messaging on the side panel, which can be on a one-to-one basis or from the moderator to the entire group. It’s fantastic for productivity as everyone is working together yet they are all remote users.”

These kind of tools, which are offered by a number of big network hardware and software vendors, are very useful for salespeople who can now meet virtually with prospects and customers without having to go out on the road.

Staff working remotely also need a rock-solid communications infrastructure they can access from almost anywhere. Unified messaging (UM) is one way of doing this by channelling all communications — voice mails, emails and faxes — into a single system that can be accessed by phone or through an email in-box.

“Dialling into a UM platform is a great facility,” says Sharpe. “It can tell you what emails and other messages you have by using simple voice commands. Speech recognition has improved so much that you don’t have to speak in a stilted voice or anything, although if there’s a lot of background noise it won’t pick you up. It’s ideal for dialling in from the car,” he says.

Despite the availability of such leading-edge collaboration tools, Peter Evans (pictured), product director with Esat BT, believes they are still not that widely deployed in Ireland. “Web and audio conferencing products are being used by some of the larger companies but access to corporate email is still the No 1 application,” says Evans. “Collaboration still hasn’t taken off. Most of our customers are generally looking at providing secure access to applications such as their customer relationship management and financial systems.”

By John Collins

Next week: dealing with the barriers to teleworking