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Robert Brown was caught in a time warp - working for a modern distributed organization without remote access to the network. A contradiction unheard of in large companies is common in small firms, which make do with what they can manage and afford.
The vice president of operations for Compro Mortgage manages the company network from his home in Florida; 10 loan officers work full time from home, also visiting the six-person main office only to pick up mail. The company has just merged with a tax preparation firm with 120 branches in 18 states, so Brown is gearing up to train 40 new loan officers on the mortgage management system, Ellie Mae Encompass.
Yet none of Compro's loan officers could access the main network from their homes. Brown has been spending two weeks each month in the Cleveland office working to integrate systems and train new users. Without connectivity, Encompass sat on the office network, and full versions of the program sat on each loan officer's computer. At the end of the day, loan officers would e-mail their updated files via secure remote file transfer to the Cleveland office, where someone would manually update the server.
Brown knew he needed a VPN, but was wary of the cost - and of his IT consultant. "You know these guys. They keep you dependent. They don't train you enough, and take the software disks with them so you have to call for everything," he says.
He wanted a VPN that was inexpensive and that he could manage remotely. When a search pulled up BlueRoam , he says he thought it was a joke.
BlueRoam's SSL VPN managed service for small business costs as little as $50 per month for two concurrent users; $150 per month for 10; $200 per month for 25 concurrent users, which, depending on usage, could serve as many as 125 people.
BlueRoam bills the service as being simple enough for non-technical users to set up and maintain, but because it's a managed service, support is built into the monthly cost. Brown had trouble configuring BlueRoam to work with his desktop firewall, so he handles his users' setups to ensure they go smoothly.
"Now I can administer the whole thing from my home in Florida, train all the new users coming onboard and finally use Encompass as it was meant to be used, on a live network," he says. He expects to have all his loan officers up and running by the end of March.
To set up BlueRoam, you download a software "hub" onto a server - any machine that will be on all the time, even a workstation. Click the "add users" button and input the e-mail address of each user. The system sends users a link to where they download the BlueRoam client. Once set up, users can access all network resources just like a "real" VPN, over a 128-bit AES-encrypted tunnel.
The VPN hub and client work on Windows XP Pro, Windows 2000 Professional and Server, and Windows 2003 Server. The VPN client also works on Linux 2.4 and above.
South Smoke, a company that imports hookahs from Syria, Egypt and China, is using BlueRoam to connect its employees - scattered in Miami, Atlanta, and parts of California - directly to South Smoke's CRM application, also for the first time. "Now we can respond to customers more quickly, edit purchase orders and update inventory," says founder Brennan Appel.
In Indianapolis, the systems administrator of a small financial services firm was suffering similar pains. Two years ago, the administrator (who asked not to be named) bought a sub-$1,000 security appliance primarily to provide remote access to 20 of his 100 users. But the box was possessed; it would randomly disconnect people, work fine for some users but not for others with no rhyme or reason. Eventually, many people just stopped using it.
"After a year and a half of people telling me 'I can't get in,' it was time to find something else," he says. "I wanted a managed service. I didn't want to have to deal with hardware. I was already too busy explaining why the stuff we already bought isn't doing what I said it would."
After browsing high-priced managed VPN services from companies such as Qwest and AT&T, he found BlueRoam. "Keep in mind, I didn't have a budget for this. I'd already spent the money allotted for a VPN on the security appliance," he says.
He started on the low end with two concurrent user services. "I hope once people here see it work, the boss will put it into the budget. I said to them, 'Look, this one works. Do you want the convenience or not?'" he says.
Brown's users access primarily e-mail and Encompass. But the system administrator is using a thin-client strategy to cut down support costs. His users access all their applications on the server via Microsoft Terminal Services running over a BlueRoam connection. This way, he doesn't have to worry about updating and maintaining software on individual PCs, nor is he concerned with people accessing the network from their own home PCs.
Like Brown, the system administrator set up his users himself and hit one snag. Because the BlueRoam client requires Java to work with Linux clients, it downloads the newest version of the Java client to the desktop. But one user required an earlier Java version to run a specific application, which the BlueRoam VPN client overwrote, disabling the application. And because the system administrator has some users on dial-up, he's fielding some performance complaints.
"Some people complain about performance no matter what," he says. "But for dial-up, it can take 30 minutes to make a connection. But when I connect over broadband, it takes 30 seconds."