Remote access to corporate data and applications is really starting to mean anytime, anywhere.
Until recently, only the anytime part was for real. Remote access was limited to hotel rooms, customer offices or employees’ homes, where broadband or dial-up connections were available. Connecting
to corporate applications from a car, an airport, a train or a coffee shop was not really practical because the available ways of connecting were too slow for most applications.
Now, IT departments have more than one way of keeping road warriors connected wherever they are.
One is the growing selection of wireless hotspots. Nominally offering 11-megabit-per-second (Mbps) throughput (the Wi-Fi standard’s real-world speed is somewhat lower and many hotspots are throttled down to one or two Mbps to keep the backhaul to the Internet from becoming a bottleneck), these have popped up in airports, restaurants, train stations, gas stations, hotels and coffee shops across the country.
The others are digital cellular technologies offering data transmission at speeds that don’t match those of hotspots, but equal or exceed dial-up connections and are considerably faster than previous cellular systems could handle.
Two competing standards are in widespread use in Canada today. The major incumbent telephone companies — Telus Corp., SaskTel, MTS Communications Inc., Bell Canada and Aliant Inc. — all offer a service called CDMA 2000 IXRTT, often called simply 1X. This theoretically can carry data at up to 150 kilobits per second (Kbps) though real-world performance is typically about two thirds of that — two and a half to three times the speed of dial-up, according to Jim Senko, managing principal for wireless data solutions at Telus.
Toronto-based Rogers Wireless Communications Inc. and Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc. both offer a similar service, General Packet Radio Services (GPRS). GPRS has a theoretical top speed of 115 Kbps, and Mansell Nelson, vice-president and general manager of wireless enterprise solutions at Rogers, says typical real-world performance is 35 to 40 Kbps, or about the same as dial-up.
Though GPRS is slower than 1X, its backers don’t plan to be behind for long. This year Rogers is rolling out an improved version of the technology called Enhanced Data rates for GPRS Evolution (EDGE). Already tested for several months in the Vancouver area and widely deployed in the U.S., EDGE is starting to become commercially available in some parts of Canada this summer. Nelson says it will provide actual performance of 120 to 150 Kbps.
E-mail is still a predominant use of wireless data services, Senko says, but “”we’re also seeing thing like your sales guy needs inventory data when they’re out the with the customer and they can get real-time access to the inventory system.””
Last year Purolator Courier Ltd. began using the Rogers GPRS network to keep its couriers connected to a central system that tracks the movement of packages and advises the drivers of pickups. Within two or three minutes of a package being delivered, confirmation of that delivery is available to the courier company and the sender online, says Tony Slade, who oversaw the project before he retired recently as a special projects executive at Purolator.
CORPORATE ACCESS THROUGH WI-FI HOTSPOTS
Using hotspots for remote access is becoming simpler, thanks not only to the proliferation of such services but to the growing number of mobile devices equipped to take advantage of them. Thanks to Intel Corp.’s Centrino chip set, which supports the Wi-Fi standard, most new notebooks can now use hotspots without any additional hardware. Meanwhile, older notebooks can be upgraded with a Wi-Fi card for under $100.
“”As the older models cycle out,”” says Rob Currie, manager of data alliances at Telus, “”it’s just going to be standard fare.””
Claudia Ng, co-founder and chief executive of Vancouver-based hotspot operator Fatport Corp., says her company has had many inquiries from businesses about using hotspots for remote access to corporate systems, and has negotiated corporate rates on a case-by-case basis. “”Probably by the end of summer we’ll have an electronic interface on the Web for corporate customers to sign up.””
Ng says deals with business users be a major portion, and probably the fastest-growing area, of Fatport’s business.
Like Bell, Telus is in the hotspot business and provides digital cellular data service. Senko says both technologies have their place. “”The pro of 802.11 obviously is the higher-speed access,”” he says. “”The disadvantage is you don’t have ubiquitous coverage.””
Still, Alec Ko, telecom sector executive consultant at Montreal-based consulting firm CGI Group Inc., argues that as hotspots proliferate, they could become near enough ubiquitous to serve many road warriors’ needs. “”It’s a serious threat to the cellular carriers,”” he argues.
Of course, cellular networks don’t offer truly ubiquitous coverage either — some rural areas still don’t have cellular coverage and perhaps never will. But cellular networks do cover virtually all urban areas and along major travel corridors, and in most of the country GPRS and 1X are available almost anywhere a cellphone works.
Slade says Purolator was skeptical of Rogers’ claim that its network reaches 93 per cent of Canada’s population, so the courier conducted its own tests — and found the claim to be exactly right.
Although 1X and GPRS are significantly faster than earlier cellular data services, they are still slow compared to corporate LANs, and that presents some challenges for IT departments trying to offer wireless remote access to typical applications. “”A lot of these things aren’t made for wireless,”” Nelson says. So to get good results from the limited capacity of a cellular data connection, organizations may need middleware that makes the connection more efficient.
One example is Citrix Systems Inc.’s MetaFrame Access Suite. David Wright, managing director at Citrix Systems Canada in Mississauga, Ont., says MetaFrame transmits only data needed to update the remote screen. He claims the software is especially effective at reducing database applications’ bandwidth needs, because all the work is done on the server rather than much of the processing taking place on the client as in a traditional client/server setup.
On the other hand, Nelson says, such software is of little value to someone running a PowerPoint presentation over a low-speed connection.
Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Terminal Server also reduces bandwidth demands on a wireless link. Steve Norris, manager of information services at the City of Niagara Falls, Ont., which uses WTS for wireless access, says remote users sometimes notice a slight delay if they type quickly, but otherwise the performance is nearly as good as in the office.
Web-based applications are another way to minimize bandwidth demands, Ko notes — “”but you have to change the applications.””
VPNs, SSL ENCRYPTION IMPROVE SECURITY
Chris Hopen, chief technical officer of Seattle-based Aventail Corp., says it’s no longer enough to know a remote user’s identity — you also need to know what client hardware and connection method the person is using. Aventail’s remote-access software permits this, he says, making it possible to limit remote activity to what the connection and device can handle.
For many IT people, wireless data access raises security concerns. They are right to be cautious, Ko says, but in fact most precautions needed for wireless access are a good idea whatever the access medium.
Senko says virtual private networking (VPN) technology, which creates a secure private tunnel through a public network, is popular with Telus’ 1X customers. Some are using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which some VPN vendors are also using to eliminate the need for special client software on remote devices.
Ng says Fatport is considering offering VPN protection as part of a package deal to corporate customers lacking VPN technology.
Perhaps the greatest security threat in mobile access is the risk of a notebook or handheld computer that contains sensitive data being lost or stolen. CGI’s Ko says the answer to that is to keep the sensitive data off those devices.
“”If I’m a road warrior, I would not download stuff onto my laptop … just in case it got compromised.””
Given the way Web sites leave artifacts in cache and other files on a client, Ko adds, middleware like Citrix Metaframe and Windows Terminal Server also has an advantage in keeping the client clean of data from the host application. Another approach is to clean the browser cache after a remote session.
But in fact, wireless access any time and anywhere could reduce the need to store sensitive data on mobile devices. So in spite of the challenges it presents, the growth of wireless remote access may make life easier in some respects for IT people — and almost certainly for mobile users.