Getting a grip on remote users

Berlex Canada Inc.’s employees rely on remote access to the corporate network, to facilitate their work in the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately the firm’s original remote access system acted as if it had taken too many pills.

Berlex, headquartered in Pointe Claire, Que., is the Canadian research and development and distribution arm of Schering AG, a global drug company.

Berlex’s sales folks spend a lot of time abroad, travelling across Asia, Europe and North America. They use remote access for e-mail, customer relationship management (CRM) software and expense forms.

In the 1990s the firm set up a modem pool and 1-800 lines so users could get into the network. But the connection platform was “horrible,” said Mike Giannoumis, director of information technology.

“The modem pool itself was one of the biggest struggles. We had to constantly reset it. It would be blocking. People couldn’t access the 1-800 numbers.”

Berlex decided to hand over the remote access reigns to ATandT Global Services, which already provided dial-up Internet for the company. Now Berlex’s employees have an easier time getting corporate-served apps, and the IT staff isn’t fussing over the modem pool anymore.

“It was the best decision we could have made,” Giannoumis said.

According to Brownlee Thomas, a Montreal-based industry analyst at Forrester Research Inc., when it comes to enterprises and remote access “there’s a very strong tendency in North America to do it yourself.” But “as you try to accommodate various and sundry access technologies, it’s a difficult issue.”

Users enter the network via myriad connection technologies these days: DSL; cable modem; Wi-Fi; even cellular. “The complexities of accommodating that make a managed service appealing,” Thomas said.

So how do enterprises go about finding the right remote access offering? Berlex went through a request-for-proposals (RFP) process before deciding on ATandT. Giannoumis said his company learned a thing or two during that exercise.

“We had plenty of local providers willing to offer VPN services for Canada. But there were very few willing to and able to offer global connectivity.”

ATandT had the requisite worldwide connections. And the ATandT’s product didn’t require a steep learning curve for Berlex’s employees. Recall that Berlex already used ATandT’s dial-up Internet service.

“We had these clients already installed on all of the laptops,” Giannoumis said. “People were familiar with how it worked. It was just a setting change” to transform the dialler into a remote access conduit.

Berlex did consider turning to its wide-area network provider for remote access, but “we were getting lousy WAN support,” Giannoumis said. “We didn’t want to venture into having some 100 people having the same problems.”

PECO II, a Galion, Ohio-based telecom equipment vendor, sought a new remote access solution when its managed platform became unbearable.

“It wasn’t really managed from my standpoint,” said Andrew Daniels, PECO II’s director of network operations. “It was managed as in, ‘Here’s your client.’ But you were still responsible for deploying the client and first-line troubleshooting.

“We had a lot of technical problems. The thing was hard to use, as far as the client went. It was unreliable.”

PECO II was ready to sign on with one remote access vendor when it came across iPass Inc., whose product suited the firm’s needs. It integrated smoothly with PECO II’s existing Cisco VPNs. It allowed the IT department to charge access costs back to business units. And it provided good national connections.

Daniels said PECO II now takes care of its own remote access equipment, eschewing the managed option, not just because of a previous bad experience, but because it made sense to bring certain functions in-house.

“My background is Cisco, so it was easy for me to manage it,” Daniels said. “If you have no one on staff who can spell it, you probably don’t want to manage it yourself.”

IPass works with many VPN technology vendors, said Piero DePaoli, the firm’s spokesperson in Redwood Shores, Calif. He explained that the vendor-agnostic approach suits many customers.

“The corporation’s going to understand their security, their network needs better than iPass is. We’re going to understand how to deliver them access to that network better than they are. By being vendor-agnostic, we’re able to deliver our portion of the service, and work with whatever the corporation has.”

Daniels’ advice to companies that are considering remote access options: “Know your users. Analyze their needs. Analyze your business needs. Look for the most flexible, easily-managed solution that you can find.”

Berlex’s Giannoumis said, “I would definitely encourage people to do their homework, and to think about the type of business they’re in. If they’re doing business locally, but have other offices globally, it might make sense to investigate something bigger than your requirements.”

That’s what Berlex did.

“We could have opened up the firewall and purchased the software to create our own VPN. But what’s the return on investment? If we have to hire a full-time person to watch out for things happening on the network, attacks on the firewall, that would be counterproductive.”

“Doing it yourself is great, but sometimes it has a price attached that’s not as obvious.”

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