Cisco has launched Cisco Virtual Office, a new technology and services package that attempts to give remote workers the same kind of network connectivity they would experience in a corporate office.
The product is a mix of new and existing technologies and consulting services offered by Cisco's channel partners. Cisco claims that the product simplifies management, deployment and security to such a degree that a user can simply plug a router into a home broadband connection and start working within minutes.
Companies that have been reluctant to support remote workers will find the scalable and manageable security and connectivity in Cisco Virtual Office appealing, according to Elizabeth Herrell, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research.
"The biggest reason why people are reluctant to support staff external to the corporate workplace is security," Herrell said. "And we know, regardless of what security you have at home, it might not be robust enough to protect against malicious attacks. When I looked at this, I said this really makes a lot of sense."
Each remote site supported by Cisco Virtual Office will have the new Cisco 881w Series Internet Services Router (ISR) and the Cisco 7970G IP phone. When plugged into a home broadband connection, the 881w ISR automatically connects with a Cisco 7200 Series head end router in a corporate location and downloads a predefined configuration that establishes a secure VPN connection.
The 7200 head end router will feature security and encryption from Cisco's Dynamic Multipoint VPN (DMVPN). DMVPN offers better scalability by combining generic routing encapsulation tunnels, IPsec encryption, and Next Hop Resolution Protocol. This provides more granular access controls for diverse users and allows point-to-point communication, which reduces latency and jitter.
The "secret sauce" of the new product is the new back-end technology Cisco has developed to simplify deployment and management, according to Mick Scully, Cisco's vice president of product management for access routing technology security.
These management features include Cisco Configuration Engine, which manages image distribution to as many as 10,000 home office ISRs; Cisco Security Manager, for security policy management; and Cisco Secure Access Control Server (ACS). ACS provides access policy control, which supports regulatory and corporate compliance requirements.
Cisco has also worked with its channel partners to provide professional services templates for planning, design and implementation of the technology.
"[These services] include preprovisioning, making sure that we have configuration templates ready to go, remote management, monitoring and security optimization services," said Calvin Chai, senior security solutions product manager at Cisco.
With Virtual Office, home users can simply plug the router into a home Internet connection. The router configures itself within minutes and gives the home user connectivity to corporate systems that is virtually indistinguishable from the experience of working from the corporate office. This easy deployment is essential, according to Herrell.
"You can set up a home worker and tell [him] to set up security and … to do this and do that, but the average home worker doesn't have the know-how to set it up properly," she said. "The fact that they can manage this centrally and have the right encryption software and enforce policies – I think that makes a big difference."
Cisco has been developing and deploying Virtual Office internally for several years. Scully said the company has more than 12,000 remote employees using the technology today and plans to deploy to 30,000 employees (half its workforce) within a few years. Cisco has just two IT staff managing the connectivity of those 12,000 employees, he said, emphasizing just how simple it is to deploy and manage.
"I have this set up at my home," Scully said. "We've extended our corporate network to my home. So when I get home and open up my Mac, I'm connecting wirelessly back into my corporate network. I don't have to go through setting up a tunnel or anything. And when my phone rings at my desk here in the office, it rings simultaneously at my home."
American Century Investments, a Kansas City, Mo.-based investment firm -- and an early customer of Cisco Virtual Office -- started deploying the product last April. Network Engineering Specialist Michael Whaley said his company has deployed the technology to 110 remote workers, most of whom are sales representatives.
"Prior to this, we had a combination of different VPN solutions, ranging from SSL VPNs to some of the thin client VPN technologies," Whaley said. "It depended on the type of worker. That was a pain point we were feeling with these users out of the office full-time, because we had this hybrid remote access solution. The solution we used depended on the application requirements and what kind of hardware platform they were on. If you had a Mac, you came in one way. If you had a PC, you had to come in a different way. Virtual Office allowed us to support our end users' network connectivity requirements without any need to differentiate as far as what kinds of applications they needed access to."
The security and connectivity offered by Remote Office has eased some other pain points for American Century Investments, Whaley said. For instance, PC maintenance, software patches and security updates of remote users' laptops can now be conducted overnight, since the VPN connection provided by the ISR is persistent.
"In the traditional access method these folks were using, they wouldn't get pushes until they launched the VPN client for the first time in the morning," Whaley said. "They're trying to get online in the morning and start interacting with clients. And here now they've got software pushing out and that usually involves a reboot. This new solution allows us to treat these assets as if they're on the network in a secured environment so we can push software updates and security updates overnight."
Whaley said deployment of the technology was relatively pain-free. He said one issue that did come up was the consistency of broadband connections at employees' homes. Several users had problems with their connections that weren't exposed until Virtual Office was installed.
"Traditional VPN technology is fairly tolerant to issues with latency and intermittent packet loss," he said. "When you're talking about a solution that's doing dynamic routing, it's very sensitive to broadband issues. The bulk of the time was spent assisting end users to … troubleshoot broadband problems."
Cisco Virtual Office is available today, and a deployment starts at $700 per seat.
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