Network solutions for a mobile workforce

We’ve all had this beautiful dream at one time or another.  You’re sitting on a beach somewhere working on your tan, and simultaneously able to actually be productive like you were in the office with just your trusty laptop.  It’s not really a dream anymore, but you will need a good IT guy on your side and some gear to make it a reality.  If the beach isn’t your scene you can swap that for a nice mountain scene or basically anyplace else you can get cell phone reception.  Here’s what you’ll need.

The one crucial piece to all of the connectivity solutions I’ll discuss briefly is that you have to be able to get on the internet.  There are a range of solutions for this of course.  The simplest solution is a basic wireless or hardwire connection at your hotel.  If you have to be (or want to be) in a location where wireless isn’t readily available you can go with a 4G card built into your laptop, or a wireless 4G USB dongle.  You can even tether the 4G connection from your cell phone if you’re savvy.

Once you’re online, the question becomes how to connect back to your office network securely so that you can access company files and applications.  The answer will depend a little bit on what work you’re doing and what you need access to.  I’ll run through a couple of scenarios that will help to illustrate.

Say you have a job where most of the work you do is on documents.  All of the documents are saved on the company server, and you want to get to them from your comfy reclining chair on the beach.  If all you need is network access to get to the documents on the server and the capability to work on those and then save them back, then an SSL VPN (Virtual Private Network – SSL is a level of encryption) is probably a great solution for you.

The SSL VPN, as Anonymania elucidates, is a secure way that you can access your work network from your laptop or any other machine with a web browser.  It basically securely connects your machine to your work network through the internet and allows you to download any documents saved on the network at work.  You can make any revisions or adjustments that you need, and then save them either on your local machine or back on the server.  SSL VPN is generally just some additional software licensing that you can add to the firewall your office likely already has in place.  It’s relatively inexpensive to purchase and if you have an IT guy that knows what he’s doing it can be set up in an hour.  Once its set up you can get signed in with just a username and password and you’re off to the races.

Let’s take the next step now, and say that you’re an accountant that works on tax applications all of the time.  Part of what you do is documents, but you live and die in QuickBooks or another accounting suite.  The database for the accounting software is on your server at work.  A VPN connection like we mentioned above would connect your machine back to the office network, but QuickBooks just doesn’t seem to want to work over the VPN.  The reason behind that is that QuickBooks is a database program.  Every time you click a button within the program QuickBooks is asking the database in the server at work for the info.  There is so much data going back and forth over the internet connect that it gets bogged down and won’t perform well.  QuickBooks and any other database program is not designed to work this way.

So how do we overcome that?  Well the answer lies in working directly on the server that houses the database instead of asking the server to send data back and forth over the internet.  This idea is called a Terminal Server.  Here’s the concept.  Sitting in your reclining chair on the beach you click on a shortcut on your desktop.  This opens a new window where you sign in and get connected to the server that your QuickBooks database is on.  What you see is the desktop of the server, but there is no lag or performance problem because QuickBooks is running locally on the server.  The only thing being transmitted over the internet are the screenshots of what’s happening which happen fast enough that you don’t really notice much difference than when you run applications locally.

Terminal servers are usually created to give multiple people from an organization external access to applications and data.   To get set up you’ll need a server and the appropriate software licensing from Microsoft.  This is a little more involved than setting up a simple VPN, so you’ll definitely need an IT guy that knows what he’s doing.  This solution also does not work with every application so we’ll need to confirm compatibility.  There are costs involved in setting this up that vary widely based on what’s housed on the terminal server and how many people will be accessing it, but hey, can you really put a price on freedom?

Okay, last scenario.  Say that you’re an accountant that is a little bit eccentric and you just love apple products.  They couldn’t pry that MacBook from your cold dead hands if they tried.  Or say that you work in an organization that has a hodgepodge of different devices that all need to use the same applications that may or may not be able to run it natively.  We’ll you’re in luck.  There is a product called Citrix that will save the day for you and allow you to run just about any application on your Mac or any other device for that fact.  Citrix is purchased in conjunction with a terminal server and is basically that same concept on steroids.  Citrix allows you to publish applications from your server and access them on virtually any device with a web browser.  The great part is that all you have to do is click on the shortcut on your desktop.  It looks just like it’s installed on your machine, and performs great.  In addition if you need a full desktop you can do published desktop with Citrix to give you additional remote flexibility in your work.

Citrix is complicated to set up, and expensive to implement.  You’ll want to do a business analysis to see if it is the best fit for your business needs.  I’ve really only just barely scraped the surface here describing what it can do, and there are actually several other business cases that are good reasons to invest.  Probably best to talk with a Citrix solutions architect to see what would be the best fit for your business.

There you go, you’re beach dreams come true!  If you have questions about how to get this set up for your business, contact the pros at i.t.NOW.