Managing Remote Computing Resources

Deep in the Canadian Arctic, in a treeless land of brutal climates, researchers are using sophisticated computing platform to collect water temperature and contamination information. Once a day, if the samples have been collected properly, the data is transmitted thousands of miles south for analysis at Environment Canada headquarters in Ottawa. The things we can do with computers today is amazing, but it is not without some difficulties. For example, who will make sure that the computer has the most recent software patches? After all, it’s difficult for a financially strapped government agency to ship a reluctant technician to the desolate north when a problem arises.

An international health care company with facilities in Texas, Puerto Rico, Ireland and Brazil that a centralized helpdesk cannot cope with the problems that occur throughout its global operations. The technical staff works with the distant users in an attempt to understand, diagnose and solve problems over the phone. Solutions can sometimes be dispensed remotely, but other times a visit to the user’s workstation is needed. The resulting travel costs can then begin to overwhelm the savings provided by the original application.

As enterprises evolve into distributed organizations with locations throughout the country -- or around the globe -- the same challenge arises: How do companies manage the computing resources of a far-flung enterprise and take advantage of remote computing’s potential? The goal of remote computing, after all, is to achieve a greater return on the investment made in computing throughout a distributed organization and its mobile users.

Varieties of Remote Computing

"There’s a broad range of remote computing requirements," says Steve Robb, director of product marketing at Sterling Commerce (www.stercomm.com), a provider of e-commerce tools. "While people are getting comfortable using the Internet as a backbone for enterprise applications, there are still two primary applications for remote computing: fixed-site remote access and mobile computing."

Robb describes fixed-site remote access as those applications -- like the one in Arctic Canada -- that have polling as a focus. "There’s often an electronic commerce flair to these requirements, such as a remote server polling individual retail outlets to gather the day’s sales activities," he says. "Supporting the intermittently connected user is a different requirement entirely. You need to optimize for the limited available bandwidth and support the distribution of software and software components." Support for mobile users is becoming more important in many corporations. A recent GartnerGroup (www.gartner.com) report suggests there will be 137 million remote users by the year 2003.

As reliance on remote computing increases, support for mobile and external customers’ software environments is becoming vital. George Kellar, vice president of marketing at Novadigm Inc. (www.novadigm.com), a maker of software distribution tools, says, "The software that the remote worker uses is just as important as the network." Kellar sees the remote computing industry transitioning from an environment where support is provided locally or informally to automated self-sufficiency. "Remote computing means that client desktops and applications will have to become technically self-sufficient," he says. "That, in turn, means that enterprises will have to incorporate a self-service component -- along with self-repairing software -- as part of any remote computing plan."

Reaching Out

Remote computing also means providing remote access to workstations. Using specially designed software, a user can have remote access to a desktop, its applications and its data. In the Windows NT environment this can mean gaining access to a remote machine via traditional phone line, the Internet or over a satellite connection.

According to Charles LaForge, senior product manager for Symantec’s (www.symantec.com) pcAnywhere, "With remote computing, your company’s server in Hong Kong appears to be right next door." LaForge adds that "it’s important for people to have access to the machine, not just the network. After all, it’s through the desktop that people are used to using corporate resources."

Remote access to the desktop will get a boost under Windows 2000, LaForge says. "For people with remote computing requirements, Active Directory will make it easy for clients to find remote computing resources. In addition, remote computers will be able to register the services they offer, eliminating the need for clients to scan the network for available remote computing resources."

Supporting the Remote User

In addition to access to applications, files, printers and other resources, remote access provides another tangible benefit: the ability to support remote users. The U.S. Navy implemented a distributed document image system called the Files Image Library Entry/Retrieval System, or simply FILES. Using FILES, almost any document can be scanned, indexed, retrieved and printed. As FILES was deployed, the Navy discovered an unexpected problem: Providing high-quality user support became a logistical and financial nightmare.

Bill Bunge, supply system analyst at the Naval Inventory Control Point, is one of the people maintaining FILES. "It simply costs too much time and money for me to fly from one location to the next to help out customers," he reports. For the Navy’s remote desktops, Bunge turned to a remote access tool to provide support. "In one case, we installed a trial version of remote access software on the fly and then connected over the Internet. I saw the problem immediately and fixed it -- saving a couple of days and all the travel dollars. In addition, my command didn’t experience the down time associated with a key part of the support staff being absent," Bunge says.

Bunge’s example illustrates a growing trend in remote computing -- using remote access tools to improve the quality of technical support. According to research by GartnerGroup, remote access tools can lower total support costs by up to 13 percent in distributed enterprises. Gartner’s Jonathan Block says remote access and control tools have a direct impact on total cost of ownership. He says an organization can expect to see an annual savings of between $21 and $77 per workstation, which amounts to between $153,800 and $576,900 for a 2,500 PC environment. "Since most enterprises fall toward the higher end of this range, we strongly recommend that enterprises investigate the savings possibilities that remote-control tools offer," Block says.

Reducing the Technology Requirements

In some cases remote computing addresses a simpler set of needs than support for power users. In rural Minnesota, for example, a cooperative network of health care providers is accomplishing what no individual, rural health care clinic could. Dependent on fax and traditional mail, the Minnesota Rural Health Cooperative seems an unlikely beneficiary of remote computing. Project director Sharon Erickson turned to a simple communications infrastructure that documents and programs to remote computers. This provides the staffs working in about 40 hospitals and clinics with a virtual library of contacts, contracts and other medical information. "We had to implement our remote computing solution without a great deal of support and without the big pipes or telecommunications resources associated with glitzy projects," Erickson says.

By pushing required information to the remote clinics, the cooperative ensures that medical staffs receive timely information. The solution also allows remote users to subscribe to documents in the cooperative’s virtual library -- allowing them to obtain the most current copy of critical information without having to negotiate a steep learning curve.

Reduced technology doesn’t mean reduced benefits. "Once the remote computing application was in place we saw a two-thirds reduction in our copying, phone and postage bill," Erickson reports. Equally as beneficial was its impact on her job at the cooperative: "I’m no longer having to answer the same questions, over-and-over; and in the field those who are most strapped for time are the ones who have benefited most."

Weaving the Remote Web

Remote access depends on both the remote host and connecting client having special communications software installed. But an advance on this concept will grant users access to their desktop through a Web browser. The idea is simple: Allow a user to remotely control a computer from anywhere by using a Web browser with a Java applet. Easier to use and less complex to deploy than virtual private networks (VPNs), Web-based remote technology retains the security and scalability found in more expensive VPNs.

Removing the need for specialized software will reduce the total cost of deploying remote computing solutions. It also has an unexpected benefit: cross-platform compatibility. A Windows NT machine will be able to be controlled by any computer running any operating system, as long as the computer has a Java-enabled Web browser.

In the not-too-distant past, enabling remote computing over the Internet used to be the province of specialized firms like Modaka Inc. (www.modaka.com). Today, established computer hardware and software firms are entering the market. Sun Microsystems, for instance, acquired i-Planet and its technology that provides remote access from Java-enabled browser. The i-Planet system is notable because it uses standard protocols and technologies to deliver desktop and enterprise applications to the remote user. Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is used to provide a secure tunnel between the enterprise desktop and the browser.

One Step Beyond

With the evolution of remote computing it’s natural to wonder if the resources of a far-flung, 24-hour-a-day organization can be made available to whoever needs them. When it’s midnight at corporate headquarters in New York, it’s midday in Hong Kong. Can the computers in New York be seamlessly made available to workers in Hong Kong? It appears that vendors are working on making that a reality.

Symantec’s LaForge reports that his customers are starting to look into the idea of pooling computing resources and sharing them with locations around the globe. "Resource sharing is still in its infancy," he says, "but it’s coming. Some of the problems, like bandwidth, are inherently technical, but others are organizational. It’s early, but in time I think we’ll see both the technology and organizational tools mature to the point where organizations can reliably deploy this kind of solution."

If the continuing development of remote computing is any guide, the evolution of remote computing -- such as Web-based remote access and global resource pooling -- is sure to produce solutions that become important parts of every enterprise network.