Instant, low-cost VPNs: Just add users

By Amy Helen Johnson, Computer World |  Development

Netscan iPublishing Inc., a legislative and regulatory information publisher on the Web, shuffles 10GB of data per year among its offices in Falls Church, Va., Exton, Pa., and Jacksonville, Fla. The company used to do it the old-fashioned way: via e-mail attachments and file transfer protocol across the Internet via T1, cable-modem and Digital Subscriber Line connections.

Since last summer, when Falls Church-based Netscan signed up for OpenReach Inc.'s TrueSpan service, its employees have been using a new method of exchanging data: sharing files over the company's virtual private network (VPN). For $99 per office per month, Woburn, Mass.-based OpenReach connects Netscan's three business offices over their existing Internet connections.

"It was easy to install and runs reliably," says Harvey Golomb, Netscan's president. "The security seems to be excellent. And it's very cost effective."

Low-Cost Alternative

Ease of use and a low price were OpenReach CEO and co-founder Mark Tuomenoksa's goals. Hardware-based VPNs are pricey and difficult to manage, he says, especially for businesses that lack a highly trained technical staff. But by offering TrueSpan as a service, Tuomenoksa says, it can work with low-cost, low-maintenance devices such as PCs. Setting up the VPN requires dedicating a spare PC on the LAN as the gateway and installing a setup disk supplied by OpenReach, he says.

Tuomenoksa identifies the company's network operations center as the key technology foundation for TrueSpan. The network operations center not only drives the service, he says, but it also allows OpenReach to offer features that a dedicated VPN couldn't. For example, the center monitors the state of each client's network connection.

Another benefit of the network operations center, Tuomenoksa points out, is that it enables the TrueSpan service to work seamlessly with a commpany's existing Internet service provider connections.

For example, many businesses use a connection with a variable IP address. OpenReach's network operations center identifies clients by name, Tuomenoksa says, not by IP address. That lets the network operations center resolve the name to the assigned IP address, as well as reconcile among LAN environments in the various offices linked by the VPN.

At Nebo Systems Inc., an Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based health care claims processing and management service, the problem isn't with connecting branch offices; it's with creating a viable, cost-effective extranet. Since August, Nebo Systems has been using TrueSpan to link its central claims office and three client hospitals. TrueSpan was chosen for locations where an alternative -- a leased or frame-relay line -- would be wildly expensive, says Nebo's director of network administration, Andrew Yashchuk.

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