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Technologies for working anywhere

This is the first in a series of Flexibility articles aimed at IT, telecommunications and facilities managers and others responsible for specifying, designing, putting in place and supporting the electronic infrastructure for anywhere / anytime working.

In recent years most organisations have invested heavily in their IT and telecommunications networks and applications.  Understandably most attention has been focused on the main corporate offices, where it was assumed most work would be undertaken.  Yet people are increasingly working away from their main offices.  This series summaries the technologies that allow these flexible workers to connect to their corporate systems from wherever they may be working.


 

 

1. The anywhere / anytime office

In this first article we list the various locations that can now function as part of the distributed office and outline their main technology characteristics and issues:

The technical terms used are explained in the subsequent articles.

Main offices:

The main IT servers and private telephone exchange (PBX) will be located here, with IT workstations connected directly on a high-speed local area network.  The standards in the main office provide the benchmark for other locations.  Where there is more than one main office, high capacity and high-speed private networks ensure all perform equally well.

Branch offices:

Even with only a handful of workstations, small offices benefit from a local area network connected to the main office using either a digital leased line, automated ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) dial-up or IP (Internet Protocol) via an Internet service provider.  For cost reasons speed is normally compromised, though careful design (including a local server) should minimise the impact of this.

A similar approach applies with telephony: most PBX vendors offer branch office solutions that connect seamlessly with the main system, though normally using the public network to route calls rather than a leased line.

Business centres:

Modern business centre will typically provide PCs running standard office software and offering Internet access.  Modems, ISDN connections and LAN connections are also sometimes provided, allowing the user's own computer to be networked.

Provided bandwidth is adequate, internet-enabled IT applications can usually be run with no problems on any PC connected to the Internet Remote access to corporate systems via modem, ISDN or the busines centre's LAN requires some temporary configuration to be carried out to network and dial-up settings.

If the business centre offers direct inward dialling, the main office follow-me facilities can be used to divert calls to employees when they are based there.

Ad hoc offices:

Hotel rooms, cybercafés and other locations are increasingly used as ad hoc offices.  These differ from business centres as they are not normally designed to support remote access.  Nevertheless they can often be used effectively as long as appropriate precautions are taken.  The most common applications are to receive and send e-mails and to access the corporate intranet.

Information security is often the greatest concern in using ad hoc offices.  A common problem is that Internet history files, memory caches and dial-up settings can be left behind inadvertently for the next user to study.

Home offices:

Staff who spend more than say one or two days a week working at home will normally wish to set up a permanently configured office, with a dedicated PC and telephone.  The most straightforward solution is ISDN dial-up for remote IT system access and call forwarding.  IP solutions are becoming more attractive with the launch of unmetered services and higher bandwidth and these are likely to offer better performance and lower costs.

Occasional home workers may use either laptop computers (see the next section) or a multi-purpose home PC.  In the latter case, similar considerations to more regular home workers apply, with the added complication that security issues need to be carefully addressed.

Mobile offices:

Corporate users of laptop computers currently operate in four ways:

  1. The computer is never connected to the corporate network
  2. The computer is connected to the corporate network when the user is in the office (main or branch office)
  3. The computer is also connected to the corporate network by dial-up from home or other locations (e.g. client office, third party centre, hotel etc.)
  4. The computer also (or only) has a wireless connection to the corporate network.

The trend is towards the third and fourth ways, with "always on" wireless connection likely to become increasingly important following the launch of the next generation of wireless services.

Portable phones are already a well-established feature of the mobile office, the main concern, apart from cost and performance, being effective integration with the corporate systems.

Virtual offices:

By definition, the virtual office does not have a physical manifestation.  The concept is to dispense entirely with main and branch offices and work entirely from third-party, home and mobile locations.

Clearly this is only possible in a (mostly) paper-free working environment.  Although the most radical approach, it is now becoming a realistic option through:

  • Web-enabling and locating all corporate IT applications on a dedicated, secure server at a business Internet service provider (known as an Application Service Provider)

  • Ensuring all users have reliable and fast Internet access from wherever they are working

  • Location-independent telephony - a service offered now by many telephone companies that provides PBX functionality within the public telephone network. 

As with other implementations, the trend is towards data and voice convergence: the "server on the Internet" will in future host voice and multimedia services as well as information systems.

Next article: Remote access technologies

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