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

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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.
  • Your staff will need to know local access phone numbers for your ISP wherever they go. That can be a bit of an administrative burden, but you can save substantially in long-distance and toll charges.
  • By moving to a VPN, you'll be better positioned to step into the next new capabilities for Internet users, like phoning in via VoIP instead of using credit-card or 800 numbers. Of course, quality of service is still an issue for realtime voice via the Internet.

Will RAS be spelled V-P-N in years to come? I think you can count on it.

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