Dell TrueMobile GPRS Solution

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Pros

  • Provides secure, always-on access to corporate networks wherever a GPRS signal is available.

Cons

  • Expensive to set up
  • browsing and download speeds are roughly on a par with a 56Kbps modem connection.

Wireless technology has now permeated the computing landscape at all spatial scales: Bluetooth for local cable replacement within 10 metres or so; 802.11b for LAN and Internet access up to 30m from an access point or gateway; and GPRS for remote access to corporate networks and the Internet wherever you can get a signal. Data rates range from up to 56Kbps for GPRS to a maximum of 11Mbps for 802.11b, with Bluetooth slotting in at just under 1Mbps. Companies with flexible, mobile workforces will be interested in all of these technologies, but GPRS, with the potential to wirelessly connect remote workers pretty much continuously, is likely to top the list.

For large organisations, who value things like security, reliability and manageability, Dell has put together a prepackaged, end-to-end GPRS solution that can deliver secure, always-on network and Internet access for an estimated average cost of between £1 and £2 per user per day. In true Dell style, the TrueMobile GPRS solution is built to order, and Dell says that a sizeable mobile workforce (of around 200 users, for example) can be equipped within 4-5 weeks – the main bottleneck in the process is the provision of a leased line between O2’s GPRS network and the company LAN. For this review, Dell provided ZDNet UK with access to its existing test installation.

Building blocks
On the client side, the TrueMobile GPRS solution comprises the following elements: a Latitude notebook (any model – we had a C400 ultraportable); Dell’s £249 (ex. VAT) TrueMobile 5000 GPRS PC Card (a data-only version of a Novatel Wireless product); an O2 SIM; and BroadCloud’s SURE-connect optimisation client. You have three choices of GPRS subscription plan: up to 12MB a month for £20.42 per month with extra data charged at £1.27 per megabyte; up to 36MB a month for £39.99/month with extra data at 99p/MB; and the Group 25 plan, which costs £10/month with all data charged at £1/MB. The trick is to profile your users’ likely usage patterns and select the most cost-effective plan. The GPRS network connects to the company LAN, and thence to the Internet, via a secure leased line from O2, with bandwidth ranging from 128Kbps (£417/month) for moderate-sized installations (up to 50 users or so) to 2Mbps (£833/month) for larger installations (500 - 1,000 users). On the server side is BroadCloud’s SURE-exchange optimisation software, which sits between the leased line and the corporate servers and eliminates unnecessary protocol handshakes, compresses application data and gives users more control over downloads. In conjunction with the SURE-connect client, BroadCloud’s middleware helps to deliver a faster, more reliable and ultimately more cost-effective GPRS connection. The optimisation software licence works out at between £30 and £70 per user per year depending on the number of users. The server requirements are not excessive – one single-processor server per 200 concurrent users will suffice. All of this infrastructure requires a good deal of consultancy, project management, installation and testing -- for which you’ll be charged £5,000 (more if your user base exceeds 200). This outlay also gets you a year’s 24-hour, 7-day support.

Dell TrueMobile GPRS Solution charges
Item Provider Cost Cost/month Cost/user Cost/user/month

Latitude C400 notebook Dell ~£1,400
TrueMobile 5000 GPRS PC Card Dell £249
GPRS subscription (12MB/month) O2 £20.42 (+£1.27/MB over 12MB)
GPRS subscription (36MB/month) O2 £39.99 (+£0.99/MB over 36MB)
GPRS subscription (Group 25) O2 £10 (+£1/MB)
GPRS connection charge O2 £29.79
Leased line (128Kbps) O2 £417
Leased line (2Mbps) O2 £833
BroadCloud SURE-exchange licence third party £2.50 - £5.83 (depends on no. of concurrent users)
Consultancy and setup third party £5,000 (

With the start-up cost running to many thousands of pounds (see table above), and monthly costs of around £45 per user, Dell’s TrueMobile GPRS solution clearly isn’t to be undertaken lightly. Companies need to be able to demonstrate clear productivity gains. So what’s it like to use?

GPRS solution in use
Our Latitude C400 was delivered pretty much as a corporate user would receive it – with all drivers and client software preinstalled, and the GPRS SIM activated and ready to go. Simply insert the TrueMobile 5000 PC Card – which looks just like an 802.11b card, but with a fold-out antenna -- in the appropriate slot and boot up the notebook. Then click on the relevant system tray icon to bring up the SURE-connect client, where you initiate the GPRS connection and tweak the graphics quality settings – you can move a slider between Better Looking (less compression) and Faster Loading (more compression). After that, it’s pretty much email and Internet business as usual. When you first load Outlook there’s a delay as the remote Exchange server is logged into and email downloaded, and this can take a few minutes if you have a lot of mail. Further delays are experienced if you choose to download attachments. As far as Web browsing is concerned, the experience is roughly equivalent to using a 56Kbps dial-up modem, if you use a middling-quality graphics setting. But, of course, GPRS gives you the advantage of an always-on connection where you pay for downloaded data, not time online. The GPRS connection is pretty forgiving of brief outages – when you go through a short train tunnel, for example. When this happens, the green LED on the TrueMobile 5000 PC Card turns red, but you can usually resume where you left off when the green light returns. Should you encounter a reconnection problem, you need to hit the Reset button in the SURE-connect client to restore order. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to embark upon large file transfers if you expect GPRS coverage to be patchy.

Layers of security
One of the most appealing aspects of Dell’s GPRS solution for enterprises is the multi-level security it offers. GPRS data is encrypted between the notebook and the SGSN (Serving GPRS Support Node); you get a private Access Point Name (APN) – the APN is the router that connects the wireless part of the GPRS network to the wired part; RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) authenticates user connections and tracks connection time; and the private leased line to the company network means that no data flows over the public Internet. If this default security infrastructure isn’t enough, there are further options: a VPN on top of the private link; biometric-based secureID smartcards; and a firewall between the leased line and the company network.

Conclusion

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