10 essential tools and services for work-at-home IT pros

You can't work out of your home effectively without the right setup. Justin James shares what he's discovered about equipping the IT home office.

I have been working out of my home office for more than three years now, with job functions that cover a wide variety of IT roles, such as software developer, network engineer, and system administrator. Over this period of time, I have learned that the office equipment, software, and services needs of remote workers are different from those of someone on site in a number of ways. Today, I'm going to share what I've found to be 10 must-have tools and services for remote IT workers.

1: Quality Internet service

If you are working from home, it is obvious that you will need the Internet all day long to do your job. Where a lot of people go wrong on this is by getting cheap Internet service, such as a consumer grade DSL or cable modem line. The problem is, these services are aimed at providing fast downloads, sometimes with a "burst" of bandwidth for a big item. But they have slow upload speeds, no static IP address, and no guarantees of service quality.

Instead, I recommend a business class account. While it is more expensive, the benefits for a home worker are huge. Having a static IP address lets the home office feel more comfortable in opening services to you, for example, and host services yourself if needed. Business class accounts come with bandwidth and technical support response time guarantees, as opposed to the "best effort" you get with consumer accounts. And many times, the bandwidth is segregated from the residential access so your access does not get jumbled up with the mass of BitTorrent, Xbox Live, and Netflix from the house next door.

2: A real phone

Cell phones are great, but when it comes to call quality, nothing can replace a true desk phone. Even if that phone is connected to VOIP, the quality of the call is far superior. You will be on the phone a lot more than you would be if you were in the office, which makes call quality very important. I tried a good cell phone + good Bluetooth headset, and not only were the bills huge (often more than $200 a month), but the call quality was lousy. Now, I have an inexpensive phone, a Vonage account, and a Jabra GN9350 headset (cannot recommend this item enough), and it's rare to be asked to repeat myself.

3: Company credit card

When you are on your own, you can't wait for a central purchasing department to buy something and have it shipped to you. And as an IT professional, you will often buy things that cost more than you will feel comfortable paying for out of your own pocket and getting reimbursed for. In addition, there will be times when you're on the road and need to pay travel costs. Have your employer furnish you with a company credit card, and life will get a lot easier for you.

4: Ergonomic office furniture and layout

I've written a number of articles here at TechRepublic about the ergonomic equipment I use, and there is a reason for it. If you thought you spent a lot of time at your desk in an office, just wait. You will spend even more time at the desk when working from home. It's simple: You no longer need to get up for anything other than a bathroom break or food and drink. The days of going to the server room or a co-worker's desk to solve a problem are over, and it is not uncommon to discover that you've been at your desk for eight to 10 hours without more than a five-minute break. You don't even leave the house to get lunch most of the time. Being in a chair this long makes ergonomics even more important than they are in an office. Personally, I love the Herman Miller Embody chair and Envelop desk, the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, and Evoluent Vertical Mouse. Find what works for you.

5: Scanner and inexpensive black-and-white laser printer

Print may be dead, but you will still need to print things out from time to time. Printing is so infrequent for me that inkjet cartridges are often dried out after only a few printings, which is why I recommend a small, inexpensive black and white laser printer. You can get one for under $100 that does a perfectly good job and never dries out. The only things I find myself printing are directions and contracts to be signed. And that is where the scanner comes into play. I have found that working at home, there are about five to 10 times a year where something requires a real signature. Given that you can buy a dirt cheap flatbed scanner for under $50, it does not make sense to lose half an hour driving to the office store just to send a fax. That half hour is worth $50 or so to your employer anyway.

6: Redundancy, onsite backups, and offsite backups

When I worked at an office, there was an IT department (or I was the IT department) that took care of my data needs. If a drive or entire PC died, they would have it swapped out and fixed in a few hours. Everything was stored on the network or they had backups being done on my computer. Working at home is a different ball of wax. Given the speed of the network, I find myself storing a lot more locally and syncing when needed, instead of directly using network storage. And if the system blows up, I am responsible for getting myself back online. As a result, I count on a combination of RAID 1 (mirrored drives) to protect myself in case of drive failure, an internal disk dedicated to nightly backups in case of system meltdown, and offsite backups through an online backup provider to handle catastrophes (such as a fire).

7: Smartphone

When I worked in an office, a smartphone was a "like to have" not a "must have." If I was away from my desk, it was rarely more than a 10-minute walk back in case something went horribly wrong. But at the same time, it was expected that it would take a real emergency to get me back into the office after hours. Working from home, there is the assumption that you are somewhat available regardless of the time or hour. Having a smartphone allows me to stay on top of what's going on and provide that availability, while still letting me screen out the less important problems. You will especially want to make sure that your phone handles email seamlessly. I have found that the Samsung Focus (a WP7 device) fits my needs better than anything else I have used, but it is a matter of personal taste and needs.

8: Power protection

In an office, the IT department and facilities teams handled power issues for me. At home, dealing with power outages and protecting the equipment from power spikes and dips are my responsibility. Faced with a choice between being out of commission for three days to repair equipment damaged by a "power event" and spending money on a good, line conditioning UPS, the UPS is a better bet. I like the low-end Eaton/Powerware dual conversion units. They provide my small setup here with plenty of runtime in case of power outage and give me 100% assurance that a power event won't wipe me out.

9: Laptop/notebook

Working from home, you will need to be on the road at least once in a while. For me, that is about once a year to visit the home office, and a few times a year when I go on vacation or three-day weekends. While that does not justify a great mobile machine for me (I am using a laptop that was mid-range three years ago), I still need one. Depending on your requirements, you may need a better one. I like to have a powerful desktop machine but just enough laptop power to do what I need to do on the road. You may prefer a full desktop replacement.

10: Gym membership

If it weren't for the gym, I would probably leave my property about three times a week. Getting to the gym every day not only provides me exercise, but it also gives me a much-needed break in the workday. (Remember, you aren't taking lunch breaks anymore.) Working from home, I have found myself even more sedentary than I was in an office, so getting to the gym is an important part of staying healthy and sane. If you don't like the gym, take walks or go for a jog every day.

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Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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