VPNs and Small Business, Part 1: The SMB Case

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are common in enterprise settings as a way to connect remote users and branch offices securely to the corporate network. VPNs extend a corporation’s reach to support worldwide locations.

The same usefulness is gaining the attention of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Smaller companies are finding VPNs cheaper to operate than more costly dedicated T1 lines.

However, SMB players have been slow to fully adopt VPN connectivity over more traditional Web site access and cumbersome security hardware and software combinations. The VPN trend, though, is clearly trickling down to smaller office use.

“Enterprise adopted VPN first. Its use is starting to grow on the SMB level. It is now used consistently even in three- or four-people home-based offices,” James Mabie, territory manager for SMB at Check Point, told TechNewsWorld.

VPN Basics

A virtual private network is a dedicated communications network that only certain users can access. A VPN creates a tunnel through another network. This, in effect, controls traffic to and from the network, rendering it a private rather than a public access portal.

Despite the access limitations a VPN provides, VPNs are not strictly security measures. While one common application is securing communications through the public Internet, VPNs do not need explicit security features such as authentication or content encryption.

“Encrypted connections is a feature of VPNs, not really security. VPN is a remote access operation,” Dirk Morris, founder and chief technical officer of Web services firm Untangle, told TechNewsWorld.

The networking experts at his company argue this point all the time, he said. The popular notion is that the only reason to use VPN is for security; however, other network security solutions are available without using a VPN.

Common Uses

“A VPN is used more for productivity than for security. It combines a firewall with the tunneling capabilities,” said Mabie.

VPNs, for example, can be used to separate the traffic of different user communities over an underlying network with strong security features.

Other users of VPNs have a few office locations and want all branches connected to one location, he explained.

Especially on the SMB level, a VPN can enhance the connectivity of a company’s workers to multiple sites, added Morris. In this regard, SMB adopters of VPNs find the tunneling features a more cost-effective option than leasing T1 lines to connect multiple sites.

Other Reasons

From a business application viewpoint, VPN technology is just one more communication tool. That may make VPNs just as valuable to SMBs as they are to larger corporations.

“The main reason a small business would use a VPN system is for remote staff access to information on servers inside the corporate firewall,” Lance Geeck, manager of IT for financial technology company Kettley, told TechNewsWorld.

This can include IT personnel who are on-call for IT problems during non-business hours, home office workers and salespeople who are on the road, he added.

Misplaced Adoption

The perception that VPN services are the domain of big businesses rather than SMB users is all wrong, agreed Joe Faranetta, director of product marketing for AT&T Enterprise Networking. SMB adopters have the same circumstances that drive enterprise firms to use a VPN.

“If you step back and consider what a VPN really is, you find that companies of all sizes have been using VPNs since the 1980s with Frame Relay. The explosion of IP and its ubiquity and economy have expanded the capability and made single-user remote access much more common, but this is clearly not just a big business play,” Faranetta told TechNewsWorld.

In fact, any business that has a need for linking together various workflow systems can use a VPN for better productivity, he explained. This includes inventory, point of sale and human resources tasks.

Tunneling from extranets at other companies or enabling workers to access company information remotely are all uses of a VPN, regardless of a company’s size. Users in big or small firms include traveling salespeople, managers who work from home and more, he detailed.

Factoring Cost

Adding a VPN to an SMB firm’s networking operation should have a very minimal impact on the budget. Rather than cost, the real decisions involve whether to rely on an in-house IT guru or subscribe to a VPN provider.

“The cost varies depending upon need but can be as small as a couple of hundred dollars on the low end to thousands for larger multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) VPNs,” Faranetta said.

Most VPN configurations require a level of expertise that often is not found in the SMB workforce. The setup process is a bit more involved than taking a router out of the box and cabling office computers to it.

“There is also a maintenance upkeep. The VPN may not always be working,” said Morris. Maintenance tasks would require an IT person on site or quick access to a third-party provider.

Adding Staff?

Related to the initial purchase and setup costs of a VPN is the issue of support staff. Does running a VPN in an SMB environment require additional human resources in terms of in-house expertise? In a word, no. An SMB should not have to hire more people to keep a VPN up and running.

Contracting with an IT service is the best bet, according to Kettley’s Geeck. For most users VPN works without much maintenance or monitoring. Setup is the biggest expense.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire for just this. Kettley has a full-time IT professional, and we spend very little time — less than 2 percent — on VPN issues,” Geeck explained.

If in-house technical support does not already exist, an SMB can obtain a VPN solution completely by outsourcing.

“So it doesn’t need to take up any internal resources. Because it can be outsourced completely, a VPN solution doesn’t require any additional people,” AT&T’s Faranetta said.

Gaining Popularity

Networking pros are seeing a trend towards VPN use among SMB firms.

“The use of VPN in the SMB space is not as widespread as it should be, given the benefits. It is not well deployed yet, but it is starting to catch on,” observed Untangle’s Morris.

VPNs and Small Business, Part 2: Solutions and Alternatives

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