In an earlier “Business Insider Tech Tip”, we had discussed how solutions like DropBox, with centralized cloud-based storage, can enable effective document management and team collaboration, especially when team members are not always in the same office. We also highlighted how valuable DropBox can be if your organization does not yet have its own central server installed in your office.
But if you already have a traditional client-server and Local-Area-Network (LAN), as handy as it is to be able to store and access documents in a centralized filing system when you are IN the office, that central storage location becomes quiet useless if you can’t get access to it when you want to work from home, or when you are at a client site, or on a road trip.
Enter the VPN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) provides a LAN Ethernet cable-like connection over a phone line via the internet between a remote PC and your office’s server. It’s like taking the Cat 5 Ethernet cable at your office and walking home with it, pulling it through the streets, and plugging it into your laptop when you get home. When you want to access the office server from a remote location, VPN software on both your laptop and the server establishes a secure encrypted tunnel in the internet where you are the only occupant of that tunnel.
You dial in with a user name and a password (some solutions have a further security layer with a security ID token, a physical device that spits out a 12-digit number you also key in). You are recognized and allowed to pass-through the firewall that is protecting the server from unauthorized external access.
The Bottleneck that is the Weakest Link
This solution works well, but keep in mind, your connection speed is limited by the bandwidth of the internet connection you are using. So if you are working from home using residential internet access, data is only fast coming into you. But it can be painfully slow going the other way, especially if you are wanting to upload a big file to the office server.
You may not notice this bandwidth limitation if you are working with Word or Excel documents where the applications are installed on the remote machine you are using. But VPNs are not suited for access to so-called “fat” (i.e.; big) applications installed on your server – accounting software like QuickBooks or SimplyAccounting for instance, or other essential business management software.
Applications like these are designed to work only with full bi-directional LAN Ethernet speeds (at a consistent 100 or 1000 MB/sec). Remote access to fat server-based apps is possible, but only with expensive enterprise-class solutions like Citrix MetaFrame or Microsoft Terminal Services which are too costly for most small businesses.
Third-party remote control solutions like the LogMeIn or TeamViewer freeware or GoToMy PC can be useful, but they are more designed for accessing a single machine’s files or for desktop sharing rather than for connecting with your server. They also operate in a stand-alone environment (i.e.; they are not integrated with your office LAN) and provide no capability for calendar and contacts sharing with work-mates, and no centralized repository of your e-mails.
An Elegant Cost-Effective Totally Integrated Solution
If you have not yet invested in an office server, Microsoft’s Small Business Server product http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/windows-small-business-server/default.aspx is a great solution for remote access. It is limited to a maximum of 75 users, but this is often way more than enough for many small businesses.
In addition to Windows Server centralized document storage and access, it comes bundled with:
• Remote Web Access (for secure full remote access to all your fat apps installed elsewhere on the server)
• Exchange Server (for e-mail and company-wide calendar and contacts sharing)
• Outlook Web Access (remote access to all your e-mails)
• Real-time BlackBerry syncing
• SharePoint (useful for internal web portals and internal company home pages)
The total cost for a staff of 15, including all licensing and hardware (i.e.; the dedicated server PC) is around $5k (priced separately all these components add up to over $10k). It’s also versatile with Mac computers also being able to connect to it.
In a future post we will be looking at some of the other main reasons that deploying a central server becomes inevitable for most small businesses.
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