Working from home with SaRAH

Working from home is seen as the utopia for many (certainly I enjoy it), but I’m also aware that providing users with the technology and the capability to let them do their job effectively is just as difficult. In the bad old days we used modems and dial-up through to special phone numbers, useing hardware and software on our own servers. Today, with broadband things are easier, if your company has a network connection and you can get broadband then connectivity between the two is easy – firewalls and VPNs aside. But how about the integration with your environment at the office. I don’t mean cubicles and vending machines, but the idea of having access to your desktop, email, and servers. Many use notebooks, but these have their own problems, including the fact that they need to lugged about (which not everybody likes), and it becomes a high-value item which is easily stolen. Notebooks are also a relatively high maintenance item. A good IT department will expect to keep the machines up to date, run regular preventative maintenance and back up the contents if relevant to ensure that no documents are lost in the event of failure. All of this is complex enough on a desktop environment, but with a notebook that isn’t always left in the office overnight, it becomes a complete nightmare. I know. I’ve been there. Add into this fact that most users just don’t use it as a notebook – they pick it up from their desk at work, take it to their deskt at home and then reverse the process – and you see that a relatively high-cost, maintenance requiring item that is not actually used in it’s intended environment and the notebook idea looks unattractive.Thin clients were the ‘big thing’ 2, 3, 5, 7, 10 and possibly other years in between. I’ve looked at thin clients as solutions more times than I can remember and the primary problem is getting decent applications, particularly for the core operations of email, group collaboration and whatever interface you need for your company. It’s undeniable that the Internet has helped out here. Email applications, even 5 years ago, sucked badly. Now we have tools like Thunderbird and back-end technology like IMAP in regular use the situation is much better. The benefit of IMAP is that unlike POP3, IMAP allows you to create server side folders on which you can save and organize your email. Because it’s server based, you have access to those folders wherever you login from. This eliminates the need to carry around a lot of information – it can all reside on the server; providng you have access to the server, you have access to both your old and new email. With applications, we’re seeing so many more companies move to a largely web-based model that your interface to your company is more or less sorted for you. Many companies have Intranets which handle all of their work. I know of some that are even using custom web applications and forms to provide a method for writing letters and building documents, mostly because it’s easier to collate the informaiton which comes off the companies servers actually on the server. This aggregation of data would be time consuming on a desktop, but is easy to manage on the server side, and it allows (if written correctly) for a certain amount of collaboration between users. I’m even aware of some organizations whose work is solely involved around internet-led applications. They spend their lives sending email, interfacing with the company Intranet and having meetings.

Sidenote: We’re even beginning to see a change in the way applications are deployed. Think about the Portable Firefox and Portable Thunderbird projects for example. That gives a new twist on the idea of ‘hotdesking’.

So, what we’re seeing is that many companies are now almost in a position to provide people with internet-only devices. If you need a specific application, loading it dynamically over broadband is no longer a huge issue and if it becomes a problem then the X Windows System, or the Windows Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) technology means that running an application on the server but providing the interface on your machine is no longer a big issue either. Since you’ll be storing everything on the server anyway, there’s no need to worry about have local access to the disks on your machine. Extrapolate that out and it’s probably the case that many companies now provide expensive notebooks to people who use them as little more than expensive internet terminals. They have a local hard drive and OS that need regular updating and upgrading, an expensive piece of kit which is a major security and insurance risk, not to mention the increased changes of damage, accidental or otherwise.All of this, just so your employees can work from home one or two days a week. What you need is a ‘thin client’, a little machine capable of everything I’ve described above – email, Internet access and maybe some RDC/X Windows support and you’ve got a machine capable of everything your employee needs, both at the office and at home. Step forward Sun Ray. Sun Ray is the thin client technology from Sun, and it consists of a simple desktop unit, monitor, keyboard and mouse. Costs are low – you can pick up an LCD unit for about £200 ($350). In the home office, marry that with a decent ADSL router that supports the VPN technology you are using on your company firewall, and you’ve got a working system. Because all the client is ‘lite’, there’s no software to update, except on the server. With no localized storage, everything gets placed on to the server, you’ve fixed the storage issue. There’s no longer an expensive notebook to lug around and no chance of damage or it being stolen while in transit. I’m not the only one to think like this, and unsurprisingly someone at Sun has already had the idea. The SaRAH Project provides ‘kits’ involving the unit, a Cisco VPN router and anything else you might need for your users. At the moment, it’s only in trial form wiothin Sun, but you can see that if everything works out, they should be into Phase 3 by now. I’ve liked the basic idea of the SunRay since they were first released – there is something remarkably simple and neat about the units and the software works great. I’m even working on getting a couple of units myself to solve a few workstation problems here. If the SaRAH Project takes off and becomes a real solution for businesses who want home-working staff I can see it being a winner; on administration costs alone it’s quite an attractive prospect.