Secure Remote Access Solutions for Small Business: A Guide to Software and Hardware Technology

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The Growing Trend of Working Remotely

The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution recently that requires the head of each federal department to allow “qualified employees” to work from home at least part-time. While many private business employees have enjoyed/dreaded this privilege/requirement for years, the legislation is a milestone that may shed light on the future of the work place. The federal government is scrutinized under a powerful microscope as much as any other organization, and this change indicates that telecommuting has become a widely accepted practice. Mix higher fuel charges with increasing construction costs and allowing your employees to work remotely will suddenly have an ROI that can put operating budgets back in the black. Small businesses that haven’t confronted this issue will likely need to do so in the next few years. Anyone who has owned a business knows that every competitive advantage should be utilized with caution, as poorly executed short-cuts can affect customer service levels, reputation and confidence in your products and services.

Secure Remote Access Software

Remote access can be achieved through hardware, software or a combination of both. The typical software approach utilizes a service, such as or Log Me In, to provide access to one PC from another. These services offer encrypted data communications, file and printer sharing and password protected access. The drawback is that two computers must be used, the remote PC must be powered on and connected to the Internet and files can be accidentally misplaced between storage devices. These services are aimed towards users that want to reach a PC from a remote location; typically office workers that occasionally play catch-up at home. Prices range between $70 - $180 per year per user, good services offer simple central management under a single account for all users and don’t require a rocket scientist to get started.

Another software based solution is Microsoft’s Terminal Services, which allow a remote user to log into a server at the office/data center through the Remote Desktop Protocol built-in to modern Windows operating systems. Microsoft’s Windows Server operating system offers a software Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection to the server without the purchase of additional hardware. Profiles can be configured on the server so that each user has separate privileges, programs and personal settings. Data is also stored in a central location to ease backup processes and allow for easier sharing between users. There can be quite a bit of management overhead and costs associated with this setup, so research further before deciding to use Terminal Services. The cost of using this technology varies depending on your current setup, and you’ll need an IT solutions provider or server guru for initial setup and on-going maintenance.

Integrating VPN Hardware

The software/hardware approach begins with a central network and a VPN concentrator. A virtual private network (VPN) is a secure, encrypted tunnel between a remote device and your central network. While this technology has been around for a very long time, the encryption protocols have evolved and are trusted by government agencies and large businesses. A VPN concentrator acts as a “VPN server,” which allows for incoming secure connections. Concentrators are typically firewalls with added VPN functionality. If you have a tech-saavy employee, you can purchase a firewall, such as a Cisco ASA, or download an open-source firewall application, such as IP Cop, and run it on a dedicated machine.

End users will connect using client software (provided by the manufacturer of the firewall) or using software built into the operating system. This approach allows for users to take their PC to any location, log into your network securely and seamlessly access all of the same resources used in the office. This may require a static IP address from your Internet Service Provider, which should be available for a nominal fee. Companies that have more than 6 or more employees or highly-sensitive data should use a VPN for their remote connectivity. A solutions provider or IT staff can configure basic connectivity in a very short time. Hardware can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars with no recurring costs, making it an attractive alternative to software solutions.

Companies with branch locations, complex requirements or full-time end users should consider using a VPN endpoint in addition to the VPN concentrator. In short, a VPN endpoint is a hardware device that replaces the software client on the remote PC. Increased connectivity, reliability and simplicity are the main advantages to this approach. The endpoint, such as a Linksys or NetGear firewall with VPN capabilities, allows the end user to connect several devices to the VPN tunnel simultaneously. This is advantageous if VoIP telephones, multiple PCs and other devices need connectivity to the business’ network. VPN endpoints come in all flavors, with features such as wireless, firewall and gigabit port speed available. Endpoints begin at around $100.

Giving your employees the ability to work from home, the beach or a customer location will enable them to be more productive, display your confidence in their autonomy and make them happier overall. While you should be concerned with security and privacy, a properly planned and implemented solution can break the physical and geographical barriers. Connecting your employees will make your business nimble and may just put you two steps ahead of the competition.

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