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Hot Spots: Remote workers, stand up and be counted

Remote-office workers need to share their experiences with corporate IT because there are many different issues associated with working remotely and a wide range of products to address those problems.

There are plenty of products that can make it easier to work remotely, but you have to let the folks in the data center know what you need.

Over the past 18 months, I've heard plenty of technology vendors talk about "solutions" for remote office/branch office (ROBO) and small office/home office (SOHO). Their pitches catalog the challenges ROBO and SOHO workers face trying to back up data, access corporate file servers, collaborate with co-workers and secure PC data. They're preaching to the choir.

I work from a home office, but for this article I'm going to play ROBO cop and assume that a remote-office employee is one who works in a branch office or from a home office. Like many other small- to medium-sized businesses, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) has a relatively small IT department, but we run email, CRM, Microsoft SharePoint and a few corporate file shares. When I moved in 2005 from ESG's corporate offices in Massachusetts to the heart of Silicon Valley, I didn't realize how much my productivity could be affected by being distant from the centralized, local IT infrastructure. Gone was the instant downloading of files to our network drive and backing up to a networked storage system over a fast LAN. Suddenly, I was responsible for my own data protection, and I had to deal with VPNs and Internet connectivity performance issues when getting files from the corporate file share.

Protect that remote data
I'm currently using approximately 40GB on my hard drive, and I have to confess that I have no idea what all the files are, when I last accessed them or how big they are. I have two great fears. The first is losing my laptop when I put it through the airport X-ray machine and someone runs off with it while security ponders whether my toothpaste is dangerous. I'm also really afraid of some virus or other malware infecting my secure wireless network and making its way onto my PC. For every Google and YouTube entrepreneur there are hundreds of people who would delight in delivering a little piece of nasty code to crash your system.

Recently, ESG completed research on remote-office IT challenges and resolutions. When the research data revealed that less than 40% of remote-office employees backed up their PCs, I was flabbergasted. I'm apparently in the minority because I back up my files every night to a network share in my home office. (That's right, I have networked storage at home.) I send my files over a wireless network to a disk system and sleep well at night knowing that my data is somewhat protected. I also use an application from a reputable vendor to create an image of my machine so I can do a bare-metal restore--but I probably don't do this imaging consistently enough to ensure a successful recovery. I don't back up my PC data to ESG's corporate office because it would take forever, so I'm responsible for protecting my own data. Because many remote employees can't easily access corporate network file shares, they store many of their files locally. That's why it's imperative for businesses with ROBO/SOHO employees to do whatever is necessary to ensure those remote PCs get backed up. Whether they mandate employees do it, outsource it or run them from central IT, PC backups shouldn't be optional.

If I was working out of an ESG branch office rather than a home office, the first purchase I'd recommend would be a WAFS/WAN acceleration product to improve data sharing for the sole purpose of protecting my laptop. Right now, there are gaping holes in my data protection strategy--such as copying my data to another facility in case some disaster (this is earthquake country) impacts my home office. I've repeatedly asked vendors for help with this situation, but outside of installing a WAFS system, I've yet to hear any practical ideas. That's why I'm a big believer in the online backup service providers that target ROBO, SOHO and consumer users.

What's getting protected at remote sites
What devices are currently protected by the backup policies and procedures at your present location?

Sharing app makes ROBO life easier
During my tenure as a ROBO worker, I've only had to overcome one major application-access impediment that was a direct result of not being located at headquarters. The solution--ESG deploying Microsoft SharePoint to improve information sharing and collaboration--caused me to utter words I thought I'd never say: "Thank you, Microsoft." Before SharePoint, we used a traditional file share, which wasn't a pleasant experience for a remote user. For security purposes, I first needed to connect to ESG corporate via a VPN before accessing our shared network drive. Then I'd look for a Starbucks where I could kill time over a latte while I waited for files to wend their way across the Internet from Massachusetts to California and onto my PC. But even that didn't work very well, so I avoided the VPN and file share and relied on email to do my file sharing. This worked for me, but my requests for certain files to be emailed didn't help headquarters' productivity.

SharePoint is secure, leverages the Internet, uploads and downloads documents at a reasonable pace, and has some other cool features like file check in/check out for version control. Before you think I'm the SharePoint poster boy, I should point out that the app has its shortcomings. SharePoint is a Web site, so the ability to access information depends on your Internet connection. In addition, downloading or uploading files from SharePoint can often hog your PC's resources; I've even lost data from open files because SharePoint crippled all my other processes.

Tell IT what you need
Remote-office workers need to share their experiences with corporate IT because there are many different issues associated with working remotely, and a wide range of products to address those problems. According to ESG's study, most corporate IT staffs believe that simply backing up servers covers all critical data in a remote location (see "What's getting protected at remote sites," this page). But the research data also shows that many PCs and laptops go unprotected. The real danger is having headquarters believe that all data is protected when, in fact, current processes don't fully address the problem.

Most remote workers are therefore left with two options. They can try to control their own IT destinies and assume responsibility for protecting and securing the information they create, or they can simply expect corporate IT to take care of everything.

There are some things ROBO employees and headquarters can do. First, if your organization is among the more than 60% that don't regularly back up laptop data, you should immediately change that policy. Second, if you back up laptops, but don't create an image of your OS for a bare-metal restore, you should consider adding this level of protection, especially if your company is planning an OS upgrade soon.

For file sharing and collaboration, there are several options, including WAFS products and workgroup apps like SharePoint. These options are much more affordable than adding more network bandwidth. The subliminal message here is to stop using email as your primary means of file sharing. When looking to accelerate file sharing, however, you need to consider performance and security, and you may need to make some sacrifices. These are relatively modest steps that should improve the working life of ROBO employees without breaking the bank at headquarters.

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