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Preparing for a mobile workforce

A look at what IT infrastructure companies need in order to give staff access to e-mail and critical corporate data or applications from remote locations.

Small and medium-sized businesses that have employees who travel a lot, work from home, or have to step out of the office often, can consider giving staff instant access to files, e-mail, and corporate applications. This ensures that staff stay productive even when they're not at their desk.

So, what IT hardware and software should an SMB install? Are these hardware and software expensive? Are the on-going expenses high as a result of the new implementation? Will access to corporate resources be secured?

Anywhere, Anytime, Any Device
Devices such as PDAs (personal digital assistants), notebooks, and mobile printers are changing the way people communicate and conduct business globally as they are no longer deskbound. Most PDAs, phones and notebooks today have Buetooth and Wi-Fi (802.11) capabilities to help users connect wirelessly. Users of such devices can retrieve all types of data, including those residing in corporate networks, from their remote locations. Workers who need to generate quotations and invoices while on the move may also consider mobile printers.

Connectivity
SMBs with executives traveling frequently across countries can subscribe to the services of companies like iPass or GRIC, which provide international access to the Internet, coupled with security options by dialing local numbers from a list provided. For local Internet connectivity at wireless hotspots, SMBs can turn to local service providers which offer remote access capabilities via Wi-Fi, or they may also consider GPRS or 3G remote access alternatives.

Case study: Sin Hwa Dee

Previously, work processes were manual at Sin Hwa Dee, a leading sauce maker in Singapore. Sales orders "taken in the field" were passed on to a data-entry clerk who also issued invoices. This manual process proved to be time consuming, often leading to disputes during stock-taking when numbers did not tally.

Solution Sin Hwa Dee revamped its IT systems, installing a HP server while equipping the salesforce with HP iPAQs fitted with software that allows users to enter sales orders directly into the PDAs. Invoices can be printed out directly, too. This eliminates the need for a data-entry clerk to re-enter the information into the system and also reduces disputes over stock. The company successfully reduced the order-entry-to-printing-invoice cycle from 14 hours to just 2 hrs. This also gave staff more time to perform higher-value functions.

Web applications
The implementation of Web-based applications is a critical component to mobility. With devices connecting to the Internet, access to applications via the Web-based technologies brings about convenience without the need to install applications on the devices. With the availability of the Web browsers in most devices, it makes client management easier with standard browsers without the need to install new applications.

In building a mobile IT infrastructure, SMBs need to Web-enable their core business applications. SMBs may want to consider adopting Windows 2003 Terminal Servers which deliver Windows-based applications, or the Windows desktop, to virtually any computing device. Hence, applications installed on the Terminal Servers can be accessed by any mobile device. This allows users to easily take advantage of the capabilities of their client device, such as opening files, e-mail, saving documents and printing.

For the more sophisticated business requirements, SMBs can consider engaging their Value-Add Resellers (VARs) to help customize and implement Web-based applications specific to their business needs.

Servers
In addition to enabling remote access to the back-end infrastructure, it is important to build a reliable server infrastructure that provides the right level of hardware and application availability.

Application availability is a critical component for remote access to applications at any time, and the choice of operating systems, Web servers, portal management servers, e-mail servers, and terminal servers affect application availability.

Equally important is hardware availability. Generally, hardware availability refers to server clustering (two or more physical redundant servers), or in the case of one server--hard disk redundancy (RAID systems). Both options boost application availability.

Security
Finally, network security is key concern for SMBs, if their workforce constantly need access to confidential corporate data and applications from remote locations. In such cases, SMBs can implement a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure remote access and data security. Firewall and VPN appliances are available for small networks with tools for easy management and configuration.

HP advocates the "Six Layers of Security" approach, which comprises physical security, data security, application and operating-system security, network security, security management, and security services.

  • Physical Security: Keep computers locked down and safe from physical theft.
  • Data Security: Restrict access to data on personal systems, and document output to printers, to only those who should have it.
  • Application and Operating System Security: Utilize applications like antivirus software and software firewalls to block incoming attacks.
  • Network Security: Protect network from intruders and viruses with network firewalls, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), intrusion detection and prevention systems, and web and content filtering.
  • Security Management: Consolidate your approach to security management, assess overall vulnerability, and manage patches and updates carefully.
  • Security Services: Work security experts to get confidential and expert advice to help protect business from security threats.

Philip Lee is the solutions program manager for Commercial Accounts and Small and Medium Businesses, Customer Solutions Group, HP Asia-Pacific and Japan.