Windows

Use this Windows 2000 remote access-based strategy to increase productivity

Though the dreadful possibility of layoffs looms over many companies, there are other ways to achieve a cheaper and more productive workforce: enabling them to work from home.

In times of corporate strife, the most prevalent topic of conversation—second only to plummeting stock prices—is when the next round of layoffs will occur. While staff layoffs are justifiable in the eyes of key decision makers who are sweating over the bottom line, it’s a harrowing experience for affected workers, especially if they have dependents.

I‘m going to suggest a strategy that can help companies better plan the use of their human resources, with emphasis on how employees actually fulfill their job descriptions. This strategy is easier to consider for a modest sized company, but that doesn’t necessarily make it irrelevant to bigger firms. It involves the implementation of remote access technologies that are part of Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Server product.

First though, a qualification: This strategy will not work for every company and its success depends on the roles staff play and the nature of their jobs. Clearly, a secretary or a receptionist is still going to need to come to the office every day because those types of jobs demand a physical presence.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the example of a fictitious market research company called Generic Market Research (GMR) with blue-chip clients and a staff of 70. By doing this, I think it will be easier to draw analogies to how your company might use Windows 2000 technologies to alter its business processes to everyone’s advantage. GMR is a good example because, although market research teams must periodically meet to pool their findings, much of the research work can be done individually using both the Internet and existing GMR information resources.

The company’s story
A significant number of GMR’s 40 research staff members are single parents with at least one dependent. Recently, GMR won some lucrative long-term research contracts that have increased the research teams’ workloads. GMR’s management has noticed that although the work is being completed, the research teams are disgruntled and less motivated because they have to regularly work longer hours. Management has decided that hiring more staff to cope with the workload is not an option because of a lack of physical office space and IT equipment. The extra revenue generated by the new business would quickly vanish if GMR hired new research staff and moved to a bigger office.

So GMR has decided to try a novel approach: Use technology to help the workforce meet their targets in a way that will help them to spend more time with their families. GMR’s management realizes that a happy workforce is a more productive one, both quantitatively and qualitatively. GMR expects that within two fiscal years or less, this strategy will reduce overhead costs, because the board plans to move the company to smaller, cheaper office premises, speeding the return on the investment needed to deploy the technology. It also hopes to convert part of its research staff into independent contractors who cost less because they work from home. GMR’s well-developed network of partnerships will help to maintain and/or increase the earnings of these erstwhile employees who are still loyal to GMR.

The two core Windows 2000 technologies that GMR is interested in are remote access and VPNs. Remote access in this context includes dialing-in to a specific network server via a modem (point-to-point) and dialing in to a specific server that will then route traffic to GMR’s local area network (point-to-LAN). These technologies are included in the basic Windows 2000 Server product and can be deployed very easily.

GMR’s LAN consists of eight Windows 2000 servers, of which five are domain controllers with various service-roles. GMR has one Exchange 2000 messaging server and two dedicated print servers. GMR intends to invest in two extra Windows 2000 servers that will be dedicated to providing and managing routing and remote access services (RRAS). Both new servers will also provide DNS services. GMR’s office comprises one physical site and access to the Internet is through a dedicated 3-Mbps service. GMR also has three telephone lines dedicated to providing backup if the leased line goes down.

GMR’s researchers need access to both the Internet and data stored on the company’s intranet. GMR’s IT department has presented a plan for achieving the desired changes in business processes. The outline plan makes full use of Windows 2000 technologies and will give the reader a good idea of what is possible.

General connectivity:
  • The 40 remote workers will ordinarily connect to GMR across the Internet via secure VPN sessions controlled by the new Windows 2000 RRAS servers.
  • Most of the remote workers already have high-speed Internet connections at home. GMR will fully subsidize the cost of these connections for at least one year. For researchers without high-speed access, GMR will pay for the installation and service costs for these for at least one year. This will allow all the researchers to connect and work speedily and efficiently.
  • For the four employees without a computer in their home, GMR will provide interest-free loans for the purchase of computers.
  • RAS dial-up services will be reserved for back up, in case there is a connectivity problem on the leased line.

Internet connectivity:
  • The remote workers will use GMR as their gateway to the Internet. The deployment of two DNS servers will speed up name resolution and provide a way for logs to be kept, which is important because GMR’s board wants to know that remote workers are working for GMR and not just surfing the Internet on company time.
  • GMR’s intranet will be modified to act as a simple research portal for all remote workers.

LAN connectivity:
  • The two RRAS servers will be responsible for routing all remote traffic onto the LAN. RRAS’ built-in routing server will fulfill this task so GMR will not have to invest in extra, costly dedicated routers beyond the one used for the corporation’s Internet connection.
  • DHCP services will be provided to all remote clients, which, upon connection, will also receive DHCP options such as DNS, Gateway, and WINS information.
  • Because GMR’s DHCP services are run on two of the domain controllers, DHCP Relay Agents will be installed on both RRAS servers to route DHCP-discover packets to the DHCP servers.
  • Until they can be upgraded, DHCP will also be used to provide legacy remote clients a way of updating their records in DNS through the use of secure Dynamic DNS.

Security:
  • The biggest change in network security at GMR will be the anticipated high volume of remote traffic. For this reason, all security and authentication events will be controlled by one of the two RRAS servers. This server will become an Internet authentication server (IAS) that has access to all users’ security credentials stored in Active Directory.
  • The IAS supports the RADIUS protocol, which enables all remote access authentication, authorization, auditing, and accounting (AAAA) events to be processed by the IAS server. The IAS server also controls the application of any remote access policies. The latter can control access based on numerous criteria, such as time of day, IP address, and Windows 2000 security group membership.
  • Security of remote-user credentials and research data is an important requirement at GMR. To meet this demand, GMR will implement VPN sessions to help protect this traffic. Windows 2000 includes high-level security protocols such as L2TP and IPSec, which establish and help to control a secure data-transfer environment.

Collaboration:
  • Remote workers will access their e-mail through the RRAS servers. Outlook Web Access (OWA) will provide a backup system.
  • Research reports will be stored in Exchange public folders with appropriate access permissions determined by the members of different research teams.
  • In time, it is hoped that researchers will be able to videoconference with each other, rather than have to attend progress meetings at GMR’s offices.
  • In addition, GMR’s board hopes to be able to use Windows 2000’s IP multicasting abilities to present its research reports findings to its clients. This will be especially useful for the growing overseas-business portfolio.

Training:
GMR has committed part of the budget to training the remote workforce in the techniques of remote working. The board realizes that without training, the new strategy may well fail. And that’s a failure that both the company and its workforce can’t afford to make.
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