The last thing that most small businesses want to spend time worrying about is IT, writes Bloor analyst Rob Bamforth. One area where complexity increases rapidly is networking, and remote-access networks only add further challenges. In larger companies it might be acceptable to find the right specialist, integrate the right software and hardware together, and off you go. All-in-one appliance-type solutions can provide valuable complexity reduction, with the caveat of a reduction in variety.
At the recent wireless LAN event at Olympia, a new product announcement by US Robotics sought to address the small business remote access opportunity for complexity reduction. Whilst not exactly a strategic enterprise vendor, US Robotics' revenues have a good balance between business and consumer. As a remote access technology specialist, many will have grown up with their modem technology (my first remote connection experiences were at 300baud, but I'm sure someone will respond with a "luxury, we had to poke the bits down one at a time with a logic probe").
Amidst US Robotics' worthy press releases for upgraded performance, improved standards support, etc, etc, one in particular caught my eye. It announced the catchily-named USR808200. This is a low-cost, combined firewall and Virtual Private Network (VPN) router for securing both direct connection and remote access, aimed at small businesses. The software solution is integrated into the one appliance, which is based on an Intel IXP422 network processor, with encryption performed in hardware to keep performance up.
A VPN client is provided as part of the package with no requirement for additional licenses, and it will support up to 253 IPsec connections. Set-up is by wizard, with ongoing management based on a simple web-based interface. The unit has stack-compatibility with other US Robotics networking products, so it's physical deployment should be simple too.
The all-in-one approach does limit some choices, and might not appeal to those with support in place for dealing with the complexities of IT networks, but for the small business, an appliance approach can work well. The USR808200 has an unusual extra feature too. It wouldn't be the first router to provide a print server, but with an IEEE-1394 Firewire and two USB ports, this unit can also support external devices like disks. Networked attached storage might seem like a grand feature for a £300 device, but it does mean it can provide a very low cost network file server capability.
Once you factor in the secured remote access, and firewall protection this looks like a very interesting unit for small office businesses. It demonstrates that mobile working with remote access to central IT doesn't have to be the preserve of larger enterprises with specialised staff. As the number of small companies grows, and constant access to the IT becomes an increasing feature of any business, the need for simple and secure remote connectivity will broaden interest in this type of product.
Now if only USR could give it a less dull numeric, corporate-sounding name. How about "The SME Butler" - serves your needs while protecting you from unwelcome visitors?