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It wasn't too long ago that the best scenario for telecommuters, aside from working in their pajamas, was a 56-Kbps modem and limited security when they accessed the business network or the Web. But within the past two years, equipment vendors and service providers have changed that, giving home-office workers an IT setup that closely mirrors that of their headquarters counterparts.
The rise in the number of telecommuters and the growing acceptance of telecommuting by businesses corresponds with the advent of a handful of technologies introduced in recent years to give telecommuters faster, more secure, and more functional IT tools. Along with giving telecommuters the tools they need, the technologies make telecommuting palatable to managers, who need reassurance that home-office workers are just as busy and as easy to contact as office dwellers.
Nearly 32 million people will telecommute full-or part-time this year, technology research firm Cahners In-Stat/MicroDesign Resources says. That's up from about 31 million last year and just over 30 million in 2000. The overall growth rate for telecommuting has stayed remarkably steady at about 7% a year for a decade, says Kneko Burney, director of E-business infrastructure and services at Cahners In-Stat/MDR.
Until recently, however, most telecommuters had little choice but to endure painfully slow dial-up data services, complex equipment, and gaping security holes. Within the past two years, vendors and service providers have solved the most glaring of those deficiencies. Significant advances include easier-to-obtain broadband data services, software that lets remote workers access centrally hosted applications, multifunctional access devices, and security technologies to protect sensitive data, Burney says.
Network managers and IT staffs are especially concerned about the security of data carried to and from telecommuters' PCs on broadband data services such as digital subscriber lines or cable modem services. These are risks because they're "always on" technologies that stay connected to the Internet, exposing subscribers to threats for extended periods of time. Cable-modem services pose an additional security risk because the technology shares connections among multiple subscribers, exposing a subscriber's data to any other user on the connection in the same way that a LAN shares data among multiple PCs.
But new security tools are helping to ease some of those concerns, Burney says. These include firewalls, either software-or hardware-based, easy-to-implement virtual private network services, and powerful encryption techniques.
"For business users, especially in some industries where company data is incredibly sensitive, you want to make sure the data is protected," Burney says. An inexpensive, easy-to-implement solution for protecting that data is software that's easily installed on remote workers' PCs to set up secure VPNs on IP networks, she says.
Apart from economic and social reasons for telecommuting's popularity, it's technology that makes it possible. "People have been talking about telecommuting for 20 years, but the infrastructure wasn't there for information-intensive jobs," Burney says. It wasn't until last year that broadband DSL and cable-modem services became widely enough available to be significant factors, she says.
By the end of last year, three-quarters of U.S. households had access to either cable modem or DSL service, and by 2005, the figure will reach 85%, according to the Yankee Group.
Between the two technologies, cable modems have a slight edge. At the end of 2000, 52% of households could get cable-modem service, and by the end of 2005, the figure is expected to be 82%. In comparison, DSL reached only 34% of households by the end of 2000, and is projected to rise to 74% by the end of 2005. As far as actual subscribers, 5.5 million households used cable modem service by mid-2001, compared with 2.5 million households with DSL.
Along with more widely available broadband services, the equipment also is easier to use as vendors continue to perfect their home-office products.
This week, 3Com Corp. will introduce its OfficeConnect Cable/DSL Secure Gateway, an all-in-one home-networking device with a street price of $250. 3Com's latest product falls into the category of residential gateways, a new breed of equipment that also includes vendors such as Linksys and Netgear. They offer a range of home-networking functions in one device. The products typically combine a DSL or cable modem, an Ethernet switch, a firewall, and VPN capabilities.
The 3Com device has a single Ethernet connection at speeds as fast as 50 Mbps to a DSL or cable-modem connection to the outside world and contains a four-port 10/100 Ethernet switch, which can support up to 253 users. But it will likely support fewer than that in most home-office setups, says Robert Winch, director of product management for small-business products at 3Com.
The gateway also contains a stateful inspection firewall and a VPN tunnel server, as well as triple Digital Encryption Standard and 168-bit public key encryption, network address translation, and a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server, Winch says. 3Com is able to offer as many functions as it does on the gateway because chipmakers can supply application-specific integrated circuits with many of the functions already built-in at low cost, supplemented by software that's fairly easy to develop, he says. Over time, devices will include even more capabilities as "more and more of these functions are combined into one device," which simplifies matters for telecommuters, he says.
For most companies contemplating work-at-home programs, simplicity is important. The top telecommuting enabler is a regular telephone, followed closely by high-speed remote access to the company's intranet, says Calvin Yap, partner in Irvine, Calif., law firm Oswald & Yap. The firm lets its 13 attorneys work from home if they're ill or must attend to an emergency.
Several years ago, lawyers who needed to work from home dialed into the firm's network via modems, but the attorneys today wouldn't tolerate low-speed modem connections. Today, all of the firm's attorneys have either DSL or high-speed cable modem services at their homes. Before the firm had high-speed access, attorneys frustrated from waiting to download long documents via dial-up modems "would get into their cars even if they were still sick and drive to the office," Yap says.
Regular phones, supplemented by cell phones, are "the first line of telecommuting," Yap says. Attorneys can access the firm's intranet to download a database that contains all the documents they might need. For security, accessing the intranet requires attorneys to enter a user name and password. A firewall at the firm's offices guards against hackers.
"As long as attorneys have access to our network and a printer, they can do almost anything they need to do just as if they were in the office," Yap says. The firm pays for all the software and equipment needed at headquarters, but attorneys pick up the tab for their cable modem or DSL accounts because they presumably also use the high-speed links for personal matters, Yap says.
Even with workers routinely accessing advanced data applications from their homes or elsewhere, some companies still rely on slower dial-up links to centralized data. Specialty merchandiser Tee's Plus in Groton, Conn., has a LAN-based telephone system from 3Com and uses a client-server software from Citrix Systems Inc. that lets salespeople and executives access all of the company's software applications remotely, whether they're in a home office, traveling, or at a customer site. Of the company's 68 employees, 14 salespeople and executives occasionally work outside the office.
Despite the large graphics files that he sometimes needs, Tee's Plus marketing director Tom Craig, like all other employees, uses a modem and his own Internet service provider account to connect from home to the company's intranet, which has a user name and password authorization scheme and firewall protection. DSL service isn't available in the region, and the few employees that had cable-modem service lost it recently when the local cable-TV company suspended service because its provider, At Home Corp., went out of business.
By using Citrix to remotely access the network, "I can work on art online, even if it's a really large file, while it's on the server at the office," Craig says. Because Craig uses dial-up, he uses compression software to limit the size of the files he works with and tries not to download the largest files. The system also lets salespeople check customers' order histories and place new orders from the field, which saves time and money and reduces the chance for ordering errors.
The company's LAN-based telephone system also keeps remote workers in constant communication with headquarters, Craig says. The 3Com NBX phone system ties into all of the company's computers so workers at their offices have instant access to customers' account information when they call. It links headquarters workers to three employees in a satellite office in Bramford, Conn., he says, and to the home office of the company's CEO, who works in Jupiter, Fla., just as if they were in the same building.