Worth a look if you’re linking remote workers

I’ve been asked a lot recently about how best to link remote workers in branch or home offices to the networker.

The typical challenge is a company wants to connect dozens or hundreds of remote workers who generally have access to either cable modem or DSL services but aren’t within reach of the fiber or cable of a single service provider. One IT executive is looking to provide broadband access to 600 sales executives scattered mostly in home offices. Others want to link large numbers of remote offices (often retail stores).

Several years ago, when broadband was less ubiquitous, the answer was to purchase a dial-up VPN service such as AT&T’s. Remote workers today are less happy with the limitations of dialup, which means network executives are often asked to locate, set up, and support dozens or hundreds of broadband remote links, each from a different provider. Can you say nonstarter?

The good news is that some service providers are paying attention to the problem. By lining up relationships with a range of broadband providers that offer the last-mile (and in some cases, long-haul) connectivity, these providers can offer VPN services and 24-7 management and support over their partners’ infrastructure. Most importantly, they provide companies with the all-important “one throat to choke” that helps simplify the day-to-day management of remote solutions.

Such providers include Global Linking Solutions, MegaPath Networks Inc. and Netifice Communications Inc. While these players are relatively small and obscure, they’re beginning to gain real momentum.

For example, Netifice recently was selected by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. to provide connectivity to 10,000 remote workers. MegaPath provides point-of-sale services to RadioShack Corp.’s 28,000 in-store workers. Moreover, unlike some of their predecessors, these companies have often kept strong control over their financials, managing to balance growth with profitability. According to MegaPath, for example, RadioShack’s revenue increased by 85 percent in 2002 and the company expects to hit profitability in fall 2003.

Network executives also should consider another group of players, the more traditional “extranet” providers that operate their own long-haul networks but rely on a range of last-mile providers for broadband access. These include Equant NV and Infonet Services Corp., and more recently companies such as Radianz and Savvis Communications Corp., which also offer enhanced services for specific vertical markets. Savvis and Radianz offer financial service extranets; Savvis over its own infrastructure and Radianz across Equant’s infrastructure.

In selecting among the providers, network executives should consider geographic reach (local, national, and global if required), financial stability, service and support capabilities, and technical feature/functionality. When it comes to service and support, make sure the provider has a track record of supporting organizations of your size and type. Get references. From a feature-functionality perspective, make sure they’re offering the type of VPNs appropriate for your application requirements.

And if you find other providers that help solve this problem, please drop me a line.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.