Cisco launches Virtual Office

Cisco Systems said it’s capitalizing on rising energy prices and the increased focus on green programs by offering a hardware bundle that makes it easy for companies to roll out full office functionality to workers’ homes and remote offices.

The company announced its Cisco Virtual Office bundle – consisting of an Integrated Services Router and IP phone at the remote site, managed at the head-end site by a VPN aggregation router and software package – on Tuesday.

“We think this is a very timely solution,” said Calvin Chai, senior security solutions manager for Cisco, in a pre-briefing last week. Aside from rising gas prices and environmental efforts, globalization and collaboration are “contributing to the rise of the remote work force,” Chai said.

“It’s not always an either/or discussion” when it comes to work from the office or working from home, Chai said. More than 40 per cent of adults who use a computer at work also work at home after hours at least once a week, according to a North American Technographics survey.

Whatever’s fueling the move to more telework, there are still business concerns that can make the enterprise hesitant – compliance issues, threat management and policy and control issues. “IT security continues to be the main concern,” Chai said.

The Virtual Office is aimed at extending enterprise security and functionality to remote locations. “Everything (in the bundle) is what we have off-the-shelf today,” Chai said.

The remote site gets a Cisco 800 series Integrated Services Router and 7900 series IP phone. “This is really the end-user premises equipment,” Chai said. When a user docs his or her laptop at home, or connects wirelessly to the router, presence is detected and the IP phone activated on the office line. The computer is connected directly to the corporate LAN. With four Ethernet ports, the ISR can also be hardwired into a LAN at the remote site.

For unified communications and voice over IP purposes, the router must have a 256Kbps downstream connection to the Internet, well within the limits of most broadband services, said Chai.

In a home environment, where other users might want recreational access to the Internet, the ISR uses split tunneling – other computers pass through straight to the cloud, while the corporate computer uses the VPN connection, Chai said. That way, traffic that might cause security problems is isolated from the corporate network.

“There’s a real physical demarcation,” said Elizabeth Herrell, vice-president of Forrester Research. “Security is a major issue when you’re working at home over the Internet.” She said the extenstion of an extra enterprise-level layer of security should make companies more comfortable rolling out telework initiatives.

The bundle for use at the remote site costs about $700.

Back at the office, the VPN terminates at a Cisco 7200 series VPN aggregation router. Cisco Security Manager provides policy control, Cisco ACS provides access and identity control and an engine rolls out the configuration to the remote routers automatically. That ease of deployment is important, said Chai, because “you’ve just created 1,000 routers to manage from a single point.”

Herrell agreed.

“It looks easy to deploy,” she said. “The simplicity of deployment should resonate with a lot of companies.”

The package supports session initiation protocol. SIP is rapidly emerging as the standard for unified communications, so support for SIP-based phones will make the offering more versatile, Herrell said. “That could be very promising,” she said.

Cisco and partners will also offer professional services to back up the package, including planning, design, implementation, remote management and network optimization, Chai said.

Cisco is its own biggest customer for the virtual office offering, with 12,000 employees teleworking through the system. Given the amount of its own dog food it’s been eating, could Cisco be overestimating mainstream demand for telework solutions?

Robert Berlin, director of product management for Cisco, says no. Cisco has been using the virtual office concept for four or five years, he said. Talking with customers, Berlin said, “Invariably, the discussion becomes, ‘Well, what do you use?’” It was pull from those customers, Berlin said, that led Cisco to commercialize the offering.

American Century Investments, a mutual fund and financial advisor firm headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., has been using an ad hoc version of the virtual office bundle. “This is something we pretty much designed” from available off-the-shelf Cisco technology, said Michael Whaley, network engineering specialist with the company.

“For our initial deployment, it was only for the full-time telecommunters,” Whaley said — about 110 salespeople for the internediary and institutional channels, account services staff and call centre agents. The company has about 1,700 staff in Kansas City, New York and Mountain View, Calif.

While it’s a small router, about the size of a home wireless router, Whaley said it’s not a kit salespeople would take on the road with them. For that, they use the company VPN.

Management of the remote offices is seamless, Whaley said.

“Since it’s Cisco IOS, we can use our existing tools for management,” he said. “It’s easy to snap into those tools and manage just like an enterprise device that’s here on campus.”