Virtual network cuts home-office telecom costs

CompuCom Systems Inc.’s plans for driving down costs by moving to a virtual office model were nearly derailed by astronomical telecommunications charges.

By moving 3,500 workers from branch offices to home offices, CompuCom, which sells distributed computer products and network integration services, was successful in eliminating overhead costs such as dedicated frame-relay lines and office maintenance. However, the company’s overall cost-cutting hopes were dashed when it received the first bill for dial-up charges from its home-office workers.

“As soon as people began working out of their homes, we started paying 8 cents per minute for them to dial 800 numbers into corporate. Overnight we incurred a run-rate on telecom charges adding [as much as] millions of dollars per year,” said Wayne Browning, principal network engineer for Dallas-based CompuCom. “Some users are dialled in all day, so at 8 cents a minute you burn about US$672 a month per person.”

With the heat on to quickly find an economical connectivity alternative, Browning focused on VPN.

“We knew that VPN technology was there, and we saw the advantages of being able to eliminate costs,” said Browning, who headed up the investigation and deployment team. “Also, it lets users connect to our network with something other than just dial-up, like cable or DSL.”

According to CIO Brad Couch, CompuCom also was attracted to VPN’s security features, which far exceeded that of dial-up.

“The VPN tunnelling gives you much better encryption and security,” Couch said. “And we have an authentication server that makes sure we know who the users are.”

After weighing its requirements, CompuCom selected Indus River Networks’s RiverWorks VPN products, whose reporting capabilities let Browning’s team measure usage rates and evaluate cost savings.

Browning took advantage of an acquisition CompuCom made in May 1999 to test deployment of the VPN. Faced with the task of integrating new management and sales teams, his team set up the 250 new workers with laptops equipped with the VPN software, and along the way obtained feedback on what IT likely would encounter in the larger roll-out.

“[The test case] went quite well, [but] what we learned was to increase our efforts to inform users on how important it is to read through the documentation completely,” Browning said.

CompuCom then set out to network the rest of the workforce, a move which required participation by remote users. The VPN client and installation instructions were made available for download on the company’s intranet. The fairly complex instructions included setting up an ISP account, installing the VPN software, and configuring the VPN client.

“It’s not rocket science, but there are some people you lose along the way when there are two to three pages of instructions to follow,” Couch said.

Further into the VPN deployment, Browning said his team struggled with the reliability of its authentication server and with the increased volume of users and activity. But the savings realized with VPN were impressive enough to erase any minor deployment headaches.

Couch estimated average savings of US$8,000 to US$9,000 per day, with overall savings reaching US$1.1 million per year.