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The Benefits of Working Remotely Via VPN

Remote access is practical and convenient.

Remote access is practical and convenient.

It's 2 a.m., and you've just been paged. Do you have an easy way to get into your network, or is the pain of waking up going to be compounded by frustrations associated with dialing into work? In the good old days, I can remember dialing into work with a modem in order to get work done. It was slow, but there weren't any alternatives. I just thought I was lucky I could avoid the drive back onsite to fix something in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I would use a package like Symantec's pcAnywhere to remotely control a PC that had been left powered on in the office. We would use this same type of solution for our road warriors, who would dial in from a hotel room and do their best to get their e-mail or reports from the server. It wasn't ideal, but it was one of the best solutions available at the time. Some employers still use solutions like pcAnywhere, gotomypc.com, Citrix, etc. These approaches can be useful for non-technical users, or for people that need to use desktops that are locked down. However, with the advent of the ability to tunnel over a virtual private network (VPN) into the corporate network, the need to use remote control software should lessen, especially for the technical support staff members who happen to be remote.

The need to be remote might not even be related to a call out in the middle of the night. You might have employees who travel and need to access the network from a cab, airport or hotel. You may be interested in offering the ability for your employees to work remotely and require them to be in the office less often. You may have an employee who is too sick to come into the office, but not so sick that they cannot take some Dayquil and do some work from home. You may have an employee with a sick child who is unable to go to daycare. Instead of asking them to take a sick day to care for their child, hopefully you have the tools and policies in place to allow them to work remotely while their child is resting. All of these situations end up being productivity gains for the employer. Instead of idle time during which an employee is unable to connect to the office and get work done, a simple VPN connection into the office gives the employee the opportunity to get things done from wherever they are, using the tools they're accustomed to.

I have known customers that outfit their employees with laptops that allow them to work from home, but then cripple them with a Citrix solution, or another remote access method that doesn't allow them to use the tools that are on their machines. It's much easier for the employee to use the applications that are loaded on the laptop, in the same way that they are used in the office. When you put another virtual desktop in the middle of things, it complicates life unnecessarily compared to allowing this machine to be just another node on the network.

Security Considerations and Precautions

There are security considerations and precautions that need to be taken when thinking about a VPN. Nobody wants to deploy a solution that allows their employees in, but also allows non-employees to have unauthorized access. We must do our best to mitigate these risks, while still allowing trusted people to have the resources to do their jobs. There are going to be some networks that don't allow any traffic in or out of them from the outside, and obviously this discussion is not intended for them. There are going to be situations where sensitive information exists where the risk of disclosure outweighs any benefits of allowing remote access to anyone.

In many instances, providing employees with network access is a benefit to the employee and the employer. The time it will take to wait for an employee to get dressed and drive in (especially when they live great distances away) can be an unacceptable delay when a critical application goes down during the night. Instead of waiting for them to drive on-site, provide the right tools to get the job done remotely.

An ideal world is one where you can work seamlessly from wherever you happen to be. Cellular broadband networks, 802.11 wireless networks, and wired broadband networks in the home, coupled with a decent VPN connection, has gotten us to the point where it really doesn't matter where an employee physically resides in order to get the work done. We can see the truth of that statement when we start to see the globalization of the technical support work force. Many organizations are taking advantage of the benefits of employees working from anywhere, including other countries. It would be ridiculous to ask an employee to work remotely from overseas over a Citrix connection that has a 15-minute inactivity timeout. It should be just as ridiculous to ask a local employee to use this type of connection to troubleshoot and resolve issues with servers.

Rob McNelly is a Senior AIX Solutions Architect for Meridian IT Inc. and a technical editor for IBM Systems Magazine. He is a former administrator for IBM. Rob can be reached at rob.mcnelly@gmail.com.


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