New remote-access software eases telecommuting woes

Remote-access software, which makes it possible for PC or laptop users to dial in to a central office from the field or home, has been around for years, but it is gaining in popularity as the need increases and the software offers richer functionality.

Remote access is inherently complex because of the multiple desktop operating systems, multiple drives and analog modems that have to operate together. Only a few years ago, these complexities relegated remote access to only the most highly mobile, highly technical employees.

But today federal agencies are looking to make it easier for users to dial in either from the field or from remote offices by providing software that manages such processes as file transfer, synchronization and reverse billing. All they need is a telephone line, a computer and a modem.

"They love it. Are you kidding?" said Dustee West, an administrator at the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service, about employee response to PBS' telecommuting program. "When you can sit at home and stay in your pajamas, what could be better?"

Beyond PBS, GSA now runs about 15 "telecenters" in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to allow federal employees to avoid the drive downtown. The telecenters around Washington serve employees from about 50 agencies, including 22 organizations within the Defense Department.

According to Jim Aden, a manager of the telecenter project, the centers are equipped with workstations loaded with software such as Microsoft Corp.'s Word, Excel and PowerPoint and remote-access software such as Symantec Corp.'s pcAnywhere and Stac Inc.'s ReachOut.

Other remote-access products now used by agencies include Traveling Software Inc.'s LapLink and Quarterdeck Corp.'s Procomm.

Plugging In to Windows Technology

These and other remote-access products have been upgraded in the last year or so for Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT platforms, both of which incorporate dial-in capabilities and related functionality, including authentication capability, dial-back functions, support for various networking protocols for dial-up connections and other basic functionality.

The newer versions of the remote-access software offer two common types of connection: file transfer and remote control.

File transfer uses a file manager on the remote computer showing all the drives attached to the desktop PC at the office and to the off-site PC. This facilitates the downloading of data files from the office to an off-site system so that an employee can work with those files remotely. The advantage to this arrangement is that the telephone line can be disconnected after files are downloaded, vendors said.

File-transfer software usually offers synchronization options as well so that users can keep the files on their computers up to date with the files on the central system. This setup works well with small data files, but for larger files or a file that was created using software that is not installed on the off-site PC, remote control is usually the solution.

Remote-control software gives users a view of their office desktops on the off-site PC, provided that the operating system on the desktop PC is powered up. This is useful for employees who work for government agencies that do not allow data to leave the office. The drawbacks are that remote control is slow, and the telephone link has to stay up while the files are accessed.

Users of Traveling Software's LapLink typically are road warriors or help-desk administrators who want the full benefits of file transfer, which often includes a feature that allows them to view and manipulate the desktop of whomever they are trying to help, said Rick Romatowski, senior product manager for Traveling Software.

Traveling Software's Remote DeskLink, available since December on the GSA schedule for less than $50, is designed for people who do not travel often but who have a tendency to take their work home and continue working on their own Windows 95-equipped PCs, Romatowski said.

Both LapLink and DeskLink feature dial-back capability, which automatically reverses the charge of a long-distance call so that the office is billed instead of the remote user. LapLink also offers an Internet solution that involves connecting to a server maintained by Traveling Software, but dial-back seems to be the preferred method, Romatowski said.

Quarterdeck provides similar capabilities in Procomm Plus 32. One feature offered in the Procomm Plus 32 package, Procomm's RapidRemote, enables users to access files and programs from either Windows 95 or Windows NT PCs, providing "SmartWizards" to walk users through the process. The product also provides terminal emulation so that users can access mainframe or minicomputer applications from their PCs.

Symantec also has upgraded its remote-control and file-transfer software for Windows 95 and Windows NT with pcAnywhere32. And in January, Symantec introduced new Internet components that are available free to pcAnywhere32 8.0 users.

Agency Initiatives

Several federal agencies recently have made a point of making it easier for their employees to use remote-access software and telecommute from home, from a branch office or from a telecommuting center.

The Federal Interagency Telecommuting Center Pilot Project (www.gsa.gov/pbs/owi/pilot.htm) started in September 1997 in response to a nationwide initiative that set a goal to have 60,000 federal telecommuters by the end of 1998. The government is only about a third of the way to meeting that goal, but remote access is definitely catching on, Aden said.

Remote access lends itself to some jobs— such as programming, telephone-intensive work and other "transportable" jobs— more than others, Aden said. Such jobs can be carried out remotely as well as at the office. "The difference is, you don't drive into D.C.," he said.

GSA's PBS also uses remote-access software to connect to the service's local-area network, but not from a fixed telecenter. About 120 of 380 employees have accounts and software that allows them to connect from home or from a remote area using equipment provided by GSA, PBS' West said.

The employees must get permission from their supervisors to work remotely, and most still report to their offices at least twice during the week, West said. The employees connect to their agency LANs using dial-in software that is built into Windows 95.They also have software that allows them to pass through GSA's firewall. A toll-free number is available for employees outside the local loop.

Automatic configurations and other features have made the software easier to use, and projects such as the telecenters simplify things even more because the dial-up connection is made from a stationary point, West said.

Remote-access software is helping Agriculture Department employees, particularly at the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), in a similar way.

Lois Loser, acting chief of the Network Services Division under the department's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said about 3,500 USDA employees from six agencies, including 3,000 from the FSIS, have been issued passwords that get them through the department's firewall. From there, the employees can access their agencies' LANs. "We're really just getting our feet wet," Loser said

The service, called Oasis and provided by AT&T, uses Windows 95 remote functionality, and many of the employees using the service have had high-bandwidth wiring installed in their homes to speed the connection.

Handicapped USDA employees, including one with multiple sclerosis, also use the dial-up method. "She can do the job. It's just getting out and traveling that's exhausting to her," Loser said.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. also sees the value of providing users with remote-access capability. The agency recently started an initiative to provide remote access to bank examiners who work in the field but need access to corporate systems, said Howard Daniel, who is heading up the project.

The agency is looking at the available commercial technology. The software, said Daniel, is getting better, but he wonders, "Is it getting better as fast as our needs are increasing? I am not convinced."

VPN Migration?

Now that telecommuting is becoming an option for more federal employees and Windows 95-compatible packages have become easier to use and more versatile, vendors expect that use of remote-access software will continue to grow in the federal market.

But another type of remote access has already starting catching on. Virtual Private Networking (VPN) is an innovative means of connecting over the Internet that can reduce telephone costs, but at the same time it increases the risk of unauthorized access— a situation that is too risky for many agencies.

"For someone just replicating e-mail, the VPN piece is going to be fine, and they are going to be less concerned about security," said Dayton Semerjian, a product manager for business access line systems at Shiva Corp. "The most [security-conscious] pieces of the government [are] never going to use this."

The primary reason VPN is expected to boom is because using the Internet as a backbone can eliminate telephone costs and maintenance on large modem pools, said Kiran Narsu, an analyst with Giga Information Group.

Banyan Systems Inc., which is so supportive of the VPN solution that in Australia it has begun a "shoot your modem" campaign, has a solution that is on the server side.

With Banyan's Intranet Connet, users do not need additional software beyond a browser, and they don't need to dial in. They do not even need to carry a laptop if the location where they are working has a browser-equipped PC hooked to the Internet. An icon on their company's or agency's Web site prompts a request for a password and a user name.

"We've created Web server software, and it's taking those incoming Web requests and doing HTML to the resource you're trying to connect to," said Bob Rentsch, Banyan's product line manager for intranet products. Authentication is carried out by another Banyan product, StreetTalk, which verifies the user's name and ID.

GSA's Aden has already switched to a VPN solution, and he said a number of employees who work out of the telecenters are testing VPN as well.

The remote-access software he used previously was OK, Aden said, but he often had problems maintaining the connection. The VPN solution is better because he doesn't have to suffer through breaks in the line. Aden said he believes other government employees eventually will see the same benefits and make this technology the next wave in remote access.

At A Glance

Status: Remote-access software has become a prime concern as several agencies create telecommuting initiatives.

Issues: Remote-access software has improved with the addition of dial-up capabilities in Windows 95, providing increased functionality for end users and better management by administrators.

Outlook: Very good. In addition to traditional remote-access software, agencies now will have the option of choosing an Internet-based VPN solution for dial-up users.

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