Networking

Consultant guides small businesses through VPN maze

VPN activation, security, and management often require more expertise than an enterprise can handle. If you'll be taking on the responsibility for your clients, take this advice from a consultant who knows how it's done.

In its early stages, VPN technology was pretty straightforward: It was simply a network formed using Internet access to connect a PC with either a home office or a remote location. Now that VPNs have become more complex and the choices have escalated, enterprise buyers are turning to consultants for help with VPN activation, security, and management.

According to Infonetics—a market research and consulting firm covering the networking and telecommunications industries—VPN service revenue worldwide is expected to grow to nearly $30 billion by 2003, up from $5 billion in 2000, with an annual growth rate of more than 80 percent.

If your firm is going after a share of that market, make sure you can help your clients achieve the combination of scalability, cost savings, and reliability they want from VPN services. Read on to find out how one networking consultant achieves VPN victory.

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NetScreen is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic's special series on VPNs and Firewalls. For more information, check out TechRepublic's VPN and Firewall Center, or visit NetScreen's website.

NetScreen is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic's special series on VPNs and Firewalls. For more information, check out TechRepublic's VPN and Firewall Center, or visit NetScreen's website.

Finding the right solution
Stephen Vekovius, MCSE, owner of PC-NET Consulting in northwestern Louisiana, has installed VPNs for clients in the past but currently focuses on helping small businesses with up to 25 PCs. When advising clients about VPNs, his first step is to give a short explanation of VPNs and how they work. “Most of the time (my clients) are not too interested in the real technical stuff like IKE and the algorithms, but I explain the basics,” Vekovius said. “We decide whether there are going to be remote-access users or if we’re going to be linking another office in another location or both. Then I tell them about alternative methods, like point-to-point ISDN and frame relay and finding a third party to carry the long distance between points.”

VPNs save money because the per-minute cost for links made over the Internet is lower than the cost of users dialing in over the telephone for access. Especially with small businesses, Vekovius said, it’s important to give them a recommendation that will fit within a small IT budget. He also makes sure the client understands the security issues that relate to VPNs before the setup.

Once Vekovius and his client choose a solution, he sets out to find a provider. In Shreveport, LA, where Vekovius is located, there are several ISDN carriers. “If they want ISDN speed, they can get a static IP from a local ISP and get a VPN set up,” he explained. “That's usually where I begin. So to squash all that ‘Who's your phone carrier?’ mumbo jumbo, I just tell them to pick the provider for SDSL or PRI to the Internet, and the VPN is ready to go.”
TechRepublic is featuring a series of articles on this topic in every Republic this month. If you'd like more information on security or productivity issues relating to VPNs, click here.
Study the products and terminology
Vekovius installs everything himself because he wants to know the ins and outs of the network. He monitors log files and continues to check in on past clients biweekly to ensure that the VPN is operating properly.

These are Vekovius’ choices of the best VPN products available in today’s market:
  • SonicWALL products are inexpensive, easy to configure, and they work well for small enterprises—his main client base. SonicWALL is a hardware VPN, which means it physically connects from a router to the Internet to a switch or local hub. “You just plug, configure, and go,” he said. Also, it’s not OS-level-specific. One drawback is that SonicWALL VPN Client does not work in Windows Millennium Edition.
  • Check Point has the highest-rated and best-selling VPN products currently available. Check Point is what is known as a software VPN, which means it runs through and monitors the network from a PC operating system. Vekovius recommends Check Point for larger enterprises.
  • Cisco’s VPN hardware devices are ideal for larger organizations.
  • Gauntlet, from Network Associates, offers VPN software products designed for larger organizations.

Vekovius recommends that to prepare themselves to take on VPN projects for their clients, consultants should understand networking concepts like TCP ports, UDP ports, spoofing, DoS attacks, Ping Of Death, Diffe-Hellman, IKE, IPSec, and how a packet gets encapsulated and encrypted. (These topics are covered in various white papers available in TechRepublic’s Research Index.)

“VPNs are the future of the Internet,” Vekovius said. “Most clients are not interested in bandwidth without real application. E-mail is a step into Internet access, but VPNs create a solution.”
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