Small offices and home offices are lucrative markets for solution providers, assuming you don't get bogged down in daily customer visits. To ease the pain, vendors like Efficient Networks, Filanet and Sharegate Inc. are developing remotely managed plug-and-play appliances.
Those devices may fill a massive niche. Although the telecommuting market has hit a plateau in recent years, roughly 50 million people will take at least some work home with them by 2002, up from 10 million today, according to researcher ICM Global. Meanwhile, IT-related sales to small offices, home offices and small businesses continue to boom.
Many vendors are looking to ride the small business wave with remotely managed Internet appliances. One prime example is Filanet's InterJak appliance, which shipped Nov. 6. InterJak is an "extendable" Internet gateway and LAN resource-sharing device for up to 50 users. It can be shipped directly to customers. Configuration requires minimal IP-address knowledge, says Dore Rosenbloom, Filanet's VP of marketing.
The base unit includes a proprietary ASIC with an embedded micro-Linux operating system, a firewall, address translation and address services, as well as file-and-print sharing services. There are also Ethernet, USB and FireWire ports for the customer's networking and peripheral needs.
Service providers can access InterJak via a Web-based portal or telnet for configuration or upgrades. "We tried to make it easier for service providers to maintain large numbers of customers by including automated updating, system monitoring and e-mail alert features in InterJak," says Rosenbloom.
Moreover, service providers can purchase and remotely install add-on modules. The bonus services, slated for release in 2001, include VPN, e-mail, content caching, remote backup, SLA monitoring and content filtering.
Meanwhile, small offices and home offices are exploring voice-enabled PC networks. "Service providers are rapidly realizing that data sells, but voice pays," says Marilyn Suey, president and CEO of Sharegate. She cites studies showing that voice services represent up to 90 percent of a typical service provider's revenue.
Of course, small customers also want Internet access, LANs, hosted applications and other data services. The service provider's challenge is to meet all of those needs without sending trucks to every small business and home office on the block.
One option is Sharegate's DSL2000 Broadband Services Gateway. Due in the first quarter of 2001, the $699 gateway plugs into an existing power source and DSL line. Other broadband interfaces will be rolled out later next year. The box communicates with the service provider to be configured for the services the customer has ordered.
Meanwhile, Efficient Networks today is expected to unveil new, easy-to-configure DSL modems that target small businesses and home offices. The company plans to set up educational kiosks at major retail chains, which will enable customers to order DSL services more easily.
If everything goes as planned, house calls may be history.