IT Support For Remote Offices

It wasn’t a typical week. But then again, nothing about managing IT services for a remote office ever runs like clockwork. Two of Jayco Inc.’s T-1 network lines – the ones that provide Internet and telephone connections to the recreational vehicle maker’s main engineering facility and its Lagrange, Ind., manufacturing plant – went dead one week in June. Network monitoring software picked up the failures right away, but so did the end users.

“The monitoring system will alert us to a problem within a minute,” says Dave Nijak, director of information systems at Jayco. “But in that minute, you will get a cell phone call from a user – guaranteed.”

So began an atypical workweek at Jayco, with the launching of two separate, but equally frantic, fact-finding missions to uncover why the engineering group and the Lagrange plant couldn’t access networked applications such as the e-mail, phone and computer-aided design (CAD) systems.

For the past 32 years, the private, family-run company has been designing and manufacturing camping trailers and recreational vehicles (RV). Over the years, Jayco has expanded beyond its main corporate headquarters in Middlebury, Ind., into four sprawling corporate campuses that include 35 buildings and nine manufacturing plants in the U.S.

20 Miles to Go

Jayco’s main engineering facility for motorized vehicles, which is located about eight miles north of Middlebury, and its Lagrange plant, which is just 20 miles east of the headquarters, typically operate with few headaches, but not that week in June.

The engineering office lost its IT systems first. After a series of remote diagnostic tests turned up empty, Nijak asked technicians to visit the site to manually examine the network system. “You get into the blame game [with your telecommunications provider],” says Nijak. “We sent technicians out and checked our network equipment from the point we were receiving a signal, and it wasn’t our problem.”

Nijak says the telecommunications provider reluctantly sent a technician out to evaluate its network lines. “And lo and behold, they had a problem with their box,” he quips. Five hours later, the problem was fixed.

T-1 service to the manufacturing plant was restored overnight. That disruption also turned out to be caused by a problem with the telecommunications provider’s network. In that case, a network line had mistakenly been cut.

Dealing with unplanned outages, managing network connectivity, replicating applications and supporting end users’ machines are among the challenges of managing IT at branch offices, satellite facilities and other remote locations.

Steve Kennedy, president of 4-U Computing LLC, a systems integrator in Fort Wayne, Ind., says determining the type of connectivity required to provide bandwidth to disparate locations is the first concern that IT staff should address when helping with the opening of a satellite office.

“In a point-to-point environment, you know exactly where the data is going, and security isn’t a problem because there is no other traffic on the line other than yours,” says Kennedy. “But it’s typically an expensive option if it has to go a long distance.”

Jayco, for example, uses point-to-point connections to its nearby satellite offices and is in the process of installing a second T-1 line to beef up bandwidth to its rapidly growing engineering group.

Jayco is also evaluating a microwave LAN system, which provides full bandwidth from land-based LAN systems via line-of-sight radio antennas to satellite offices within range. Jayco anticipates that its engineering group will double in size, from about 50 employees today to more than 100 during the next year, making two T-1 lines insufficient. The microwave LAN could address the growing bandwidth demands at the RV maker’s satellite offices, since those sites are within a 30-mile radius of the main campus and therefore could receive a bandwidth boost from the more robust LAN at corporate headquarters.

Jayco’s information systems department is also in the process of installing a separate, on-site CAD server for the engineering office, with the aim of off-loading approximately 50 per cent to 60 per cent of bandwidth demand. “The demand over the network will get limited to e-mail and casual file transfers,” Nijak says. “People doing CAD work who are constantly moving large files throughout the day will do it locally.”

Securing the Connection

But installing T-1 lines and microwave networks at remote offices is an expensive option.

To reduce costs, a number of companies utilize Internet tunnelling to give users in satellite offices access to corporate systems. Internet tunnelling, the process that creates a virtual private network (VPN), allows data to be encapsulated into packets for transmission via the Internet. But VPNs also have limitations; most work best for lower-bandwidth traffic.

At Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum Corp., remote users who need to access the corporate SAP enterprise resource planning system go in through a VPN, as opposed to accessing data from a replicated server at a satellite office. “We don’t do mass replication [at remote sites] because bandwidth would be an issue,” says John LeMay, network manager at Crown Central Petroleum. “It’s like putting a basketball through a garden hose.”

Because replicating servers can pose problems, a number of companies allow smaller remote offices to simply dial into the network or use a VPN rather than setting up on-site e-mail and other shared applications.

Maintaining servers and desktops is always a challenge in remote offices, and that challenge can be compounded by budgetary constraints. But systems administrators report that a growing number of remote server monitoring and management tools from vendors such as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Net Integration Technologies Inc. in Markham, Ont., and Network Associates Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., are making their tasks easier.

“Managing a box without someone physically down there can be a problem,” says Greg Gentilini, senior systems programmer at St. Paul Cos.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based insurer operates 150 branch offices throughout the U.S. Gentilini uses Compaq Computer Corp.’s Lights-Out tool to remotely boot servers up and power down spent servers when the operating system gets locked up. Lights-Out also allows Gentilini to address common server problems while he’s off-site.

Still, branch and remote offices consist of more than just back-end servers and network cables. Managing desktop PCs and laptops also takes effort.

“In a small, remote office, the biggest factor is expense,” Kennedy says. “Most remote offices often don’t have the budgets required to provide a wide range of services or to pay for on-site MIS to manage those needs.”

Instead of hiring a full-time IT support technician for every remote location, many companies have IT staffers from headquarters make weekly, monthly or quarterly visits to remote offices, where they deal with any PC problems, connectivity complaints or networking issues that have cropped up since their last visit.

One company that uses that model is eSkye Solutions Inc., start-up that runs an exchange service for liquor distributors.

Based in Indianapolis, the two-year-old company operates satellite offices in Madrid and London and uses outsourced IT support at its London office. Every Tuesday, an IT consultant visits the office and provides support services, says Keith McLoud, CIO at eSkye.

“It gets a bit more challenging when you cross the Atlantic,” McLoud says. But he keeps remote management simple by keeping the infrastructure of the remote offices simple. “The only shared software is e-mail,” he says.

Enforcing uniformity on PCs, laptops, desktop configurations and applications is the most common tip from the field for keeping the management of remote offices simple.

“It’s the key to our success and keeping support cost low,” says LeMay. If all users particularly those in remote offices who receive IT support services only on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis are limited to the types of productivity suites and applications on their desktops, support becomes much easier to administer, LeMay explains.

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