Hardware

Get IT Done: Know the basics of remote PDA connectivity

The basics of connecting a PDA to a network remotely


Like other professionals who spend much of their time on the road, consultants are highly dependent upon their connection to home or the corporate office. If you use your PDA to help keep your work in order on the road, there are some basic resources available for keeping you connected.

Two of the most common are dial-up and cabled Ethernet access, two older but reliable methods for the traveling consultant. Here's a look at both types of connections and some related products for the PDA-dependent.

Dial-up connectivity
When it’s impossible to establish a wireless connection, dial-up may be your only alternative for remotely connecting to a corporate network. Dial-up can take two forms. The first is the traditional remote access server (RAS) connection to a corporate dial facility. This requires that the PDA be equipped with a 56K modem.

On the host side, an appropriate dial-up facility is required on the back end. The remote PDA simply dials back to the corporate office using a regular phone line.

The second option is to dial an ISP while utilizing some form of VPN client software (Certicom's Movian software is a good example) and establish a tunnel into the corporate network. This method requires more infrastructure and is more complicated to support.

Regardless of the dial-up method, both types of connections must eventually perform a remote sync in order to do things like send and receive new messages or update calendar items.

Depending on the number of messages or other sync items involved, the connection time can range from a couple of minutes to more than 20. This has obvious implications for international clients connecting over slow and/or expensive phone lines.

In addition, unless a sync server is present (such as those offered by Puma Software, Extended Systems, DataViz, or Palm), the remote PDA client will have to get sync service by connecting to a PC that must be logged on using the remote client's ID and password. This has implications from a security perspective, because if a password screen saver is not invoked, the PC will be vulnerable to unauthorized access.

Modem offerings
You'll shell out quite a bit more for traditional dial-up modems than for a regular 56K analog modem connected to a desktop PC. For $160, Compaq offers the 56K CompactFlash Fax Modem for the iPAQ. SocketCom has a 56K CF model for $109, and Palm also sells analog modems that integrate nicely with the Palm III, V, and m500 form factors. Pricing for such units ranges from $99 to $129.

Ethernet connectivity
Ethernet connectivity for syncing provides two distinct advantages. First, it’s considerably faster than a USB connection, making the rather tedious sync process less painful. The second major advantage is flexibility. Rather than being tied to your desk, PDA users can synchronize data from multiple locations such as boardrooms, shared office space, or any other networked workspace. There are several manufacturers offering traditional Ethernet connectivity for remote syncing of PDAs. Here’s a look at a few.

Palm Ethernet Cradle
Palm clients will need to pick up the Palm Ethernet Cradle. Clients can connect to server-resident data via the Palm HotSync Server or other server-based synchronization software or to their desktop PCs using Network HotSync. Palm offers the Ethernet Cradle for Palm III and VII handhelds. A new version for the m500 series is available from Portsmith, which also offers a complete line of Ethernet products for all Palm models, the Handspring Visor models, and for the Compaq iPAQ.

Pocket PC Ethernet
For Pocket PC devices, you'll need to select your Ethernet network interface card (NIC) format based on what jacket is attached. The choices available for the Pocket PC units come in a couple of form factors: PC Card (PCMCIA) or CompactFlash (CF).

The CF form factor is the preferred choice because it is much smaller and, therefore, more convenient for travel. CF Ethernet devices are also made with handheld devices in mind. This means that they come with drivers for the Pocket PC, and more importantly, they are optimized for minimal power consumption.

This feature can come in quite handy if you're in a boardroom where the AC power outlets are not conveniently located or are already monopolized by your colleagues. Using a traditional PCMCIA card will drain the battery much faster than a CF device.

CF Ethernet offerings
In the CF Ethernet market space, SocketCom offers a comprehensive product line, with competitive products also available from 3Com and Xircom. These products are available from vendors such as MobilePlanet, and their prices start at about $100.

How do you connect?
If you use a PDA to keep in touch with the office when you’re on the road, what kind of device do you use to plug into your network? Tell us by posting to the discussion below.

 

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