RAS: Will it be spelled V-P-N?

ITworld.com |  Development

Every now and again a new remote access server shows up at our lab. A RAS is a box
that lets telecommuters and road warriors dial in and get on the corporate LAN. There
is not much new RAS technology, but there is major movement in how and where it is
being deployed.

Just a few years ago, with the advent of truly portable laptops, network consultants
couldn't design and deploy RAS systems for enterprise clients fast enough. During that
heyday, new vendors with new RAS wares were emerging every week.

But all that seemed to dry up overnight. RAS technology has seen some incremental
improvements -- in density and price/performance, for example -- but not a whole lot
else. Systems that used to terminate 12 or 24 POTS lines a few years back are now
handling 4 T1s, and sometimes even more, so a RAS box handling 100 concurrent dial-in
callers today is not uncommon.

And as port densities have gone up, prices have continued to fall, reflecting the
maturity of the market. The RAS per-port price used to be in the $300-$400 range; now
it's generally less than $200. But except for upgrading the RAS modem software to
support V.90, things on the enterprise RAS front have been pretty quiet.

Enterprises that invested big-time in RAS systems three to five years ago seem to be
watching and waiting. Most are waiting to see whether there's a better way to connect
remote users than through an in-house RAS.

Well, there is. Over the next two to three years, most enterprise RAS systems will
move to virtual private networks (VPNs) that run over the Internet rather than the PSTN
and T1 access channels.

With a VPN, you replace the RAS in your data center with a new kind of box, a VPN
gateway. All remote traffic comes in through your Internet connection instead of
dedicated T1s from your local telco.

Your remote folks just make a local phone call to an ISP, so they incur no PSTN toll
charges. They need to run the VPN vendor's remote access software on their PCs.

That's about it. Sounds fairly straightforward, doesn't it? It's really not a bad
transition. The same staff technician who had to learn all about T1s, V.90 modems, and
the care and feeding of your RAS box, instead has to learn all about IPsec, tunnels and
encryption, and the care and feeding of your VPN box.

So is your enterprise RAS a thing of the past? In a few years it could be. Here are
a few things to consider:

  • Everything else being equal, dial-up connection speeds are likely to be about the
    same through an ISP and VPN as through the PSTN. There's more latency and jitter via
    the Internet, but your dial-in road warriors won't notice the difference.
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