by Bryon D Beilman
With the ubiquity of high speed broadband networks, fast, multi-core laptops and inexpensive, large LCD monitors, it is common for workers to be very productive in their own home; sometimes more productive. What used to be a perk is now becoming commonplace and companies that used to worry about not being able to see or control their employees are now reducing their corporate footprint and moving to growing their work force virtually instead of building or leasing more property. For the last 4 years, our company has been virtual and although some parts of it can be challenging, it has allowed us to be both flexible and effective. To leverage this business model, proposed are the top 5 technologies to help you virtualize your business.
1) Managed Services
Email is the staple of most corporate communication. There are free and cheap webmail, POP or IMAP service to help basic users. Exchange and Shared Calendaring are no longer available only to corporate users. You can have a fully functional Email/Calendering and communication via Managed Microsoft Exchange. You can manage your business with Quickbooks online , Autotask or Saleforce.com or one of any other software as a Service. While it has been very easy to get a high quality inexpensive web site, there are now many PaaS (Platforms as a Service), for environments like Ruby on Rails, Drupal or other technologies that allow you to support remote development activities. Don't forget, of course Google with Google Docs, Mail and a myriad of other services that allow you to inexpensively collaborate and share information. When a technology becomes useful and popular there are many specialists who are focusing on providing that service and they focus on it so it is typically done better and cheaper than you could do it on your own.
2) Data Center our Cloud Computing - Depending on what your business model is, you no longer need to own your data center and can leverage numerous cloud offerings from Amazon, Rackspace, Microsoft, Redhat or Verizon. It is difficult to throw a rock without hitting a new cloud service. Amazon provides some free virtual machines for one year to get started and with very little effort, one can provision and customize a server or service to get you started. If you require or desire more granular control over your environment, renting space in a data center is no longer an expensive proposition. You can host your own servers or services in a data center with high speed, low latency connections that have redundant power and cooling. If you have ever priced out building a highly available environment, you know that it can be very expensive. A managed data center provides this for a reasonable cost.
3) Remote Applications - There are some great remote access utilities that give you both terminal, GUI and specific applications that are hosted remotely and available locally. If you use a server in a data center or the cloud there are many great remote applications and protocols that will help you get your job done. For those in the UNIX world, VNC Server has been standard for quite some time and NoX has been making great strides as an alternative. NoX also supports 3D, which VNC does not. A few sgood commercial options are Exceed on Demand and Citrix for Linux access. For Microsoft access, I have been very impressed with two technologies. Terminal services has been around for quite some time, but Microsoft finally got it right with Remote Application and Terminal Services. I can now run a single application on my desktop that is actually running on a remote terminal server, something that has been available via X-Windows for decades, but Microsoft has done it better. This applies to anything you can run on a terminal server and it works over SSL, so it is possible to authenticate via Active Directory and communicate over encrypted SSL without the need for a VPN. The other Microsoft Technology that works well is OneNote. You can centralize your Notes in a collaborative fashion and everyone can contribute to them real time. They information is searchable and updates happen nearly instantaneously. I will mention briefly, VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), which is now available from many vendors but has promise to work well over a high speed low latency WAN.
4) VoiP Phone - However you choose to implement this, you no longer need a large and proprietary phone system to have the same functionality found in larger corporations. You can use IP Phone SaaS or build and configure an asterisk based system in your data center or the cloud. Each remote user can have a phone with a Direct number or Extension, voicemail, conference calling and the ability to transfer calls between each other. There are many commercial and open source options to choose from.
5) Quality Internet Connection - The original premise of creating a virtual office is that you already have fast Internet. There are of course minimum requirements for using the services. Bandwidth and speed are important, but for some of technologies , such as VoIP , latency and consistency of connection are perhaps more important. If you choose to host your services in a data center, then you have more control over the latency and consistency of your connection, whereas using cloud services, the latency and Quality of Service (QoS) may not be as reliable as you need. Hosting a web site where requests are TCP connections serving bits and pieces of an HTML and jpg page is different than providing a smooth stream of digital voice that can be clearly heard on each side. A proper marriage of remote applications and a properly provisioned Internet connection will be essential to be effective in your virtual venture.
Whatever operational model is right for you will depend on what you are trying to accomplish, but going virtual is a valid way to build an effective and successful company.