Business

Unified Communications Key to Connecting Remote Workers

My company has been trying to figure out how we can do better at connecting our remote users to our main site, as well as making our other location seem like it's right next door. Any advice?

Connecting remote sites and remote workers is a challenge for a company of any size, but it has become more important for smaller businesses in recent years. The ability for employees to quickly and easily collaborate with colleagues that might be hundreds or thousands of miles away can directly lead to increased business agility and can also serve to bring employees closer together even though they may have never met in person.

These services generally revolve around a few core technologies. First is voice services, which should not only be tightly integrated into all sites, but should also extend to the home office for remote workers, and be available to employees on the go in a hotel room on the other side of the country.

The second service is video, and it should be available in the same manner. Video conferencing from meeting room to meeting room, or from desk to desk, or from the hotel room to any of the above should also be handled as transparently as possible.

And the third is centered around mobile computing.

You likely have a fairly traditional network layout: two or more sites and an array of mobile and home users. If you’re currently using general phone service at each location, you’re likely using two separate PBX systems at each site, and using contact lists and phonebooks to allow users to contact remote employees, while local employees might just be an internal extension. If there is any video conferencing in place, it’s probably limited to one room at each site, and remote users connect to meetings via voice calls to a conference bridge.

Bringing all this together can be a challenge, but there are many solutions available to do exactly this. Cisco’s Unified Communications Solution is one of those frameworks and has been designed to address all of these needs.

The first place to inspect when embarking on a project like this is available bandwidth at each location. Delivering clear voice and video between remote sites requires a reasonable amount of bandwidth, as well as low latency on those connections. If the sites are close enough, you may be able to find a network provider that has fiber to both locations and can deliver high-speed, low-latency bandwidth to each site that can then be tied together with LAN-to-LAN VPN connections. In other places, you may be able to utilize MPLS or other WAN technologies to deliver secured networking between the sites, but bandwidth and latency calculations should be made in advance in order to eliminate problems down the road.

Mobile and home users won’t be tied to the same networks as the business sites, but their utilization patterns are for a single user, and, in most cases, residential or “lite business” cable, DSL, or fiber connections will function well for their purposes.

Building out the network with these links revolves around several key components. The first is firewalls and routers. These devices site at the edge of every network – including the user working from home – and have the ability to regulate and prioritize traffic based on business need. Devices such as the Cisco 2900 series integrated services routers can be leveraged to support a wide range of services from a single box, reducing time, cost and complexity.

For instance, the main headquarters building may have a Cisco 2901 or 2911 router that can not only provide routing and firewalling services for that site, but can also drive all the voice services via Cisco Unified Communications Manager Express and provide termination for LAN-to-LAN and remote client VPNs. The router can handle local IP phones, including voicemail services as well as support for analog and digital voice services to connect to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). It can also terminate VPN connections, provide Power-over-Ethernet, use 3G/4G wireless as a backup data path, and provide local wireless networking services as well, all within a single package.

A remote site with a smaller number of users may require a Cisco SR500, 881 or a 2900-series router that also provides these services, and is designed to be used in smaller locations to deliver voice, video, and data services with a connection to headquarters.

For the teleworker, A Cisco 881 or SR500 might be used to provide home firewall protection as well as optional wireless. They would also be provided with a Cisco IP phone that would connect back to the main headquarters (Cisco UC500, BE 3000 or BE 6000, depending on the size of the business and business needs) so that their phone becomes just another extension on the overall corporate phone system.

The more advanced platforms even allow mobile users to leverage Cisco VPN clients that are available for many smartphones and bring the resources available on the corporate LAN into the palm of their hand over wireless data connections. Mobile devices can also be used as extensions so that if a user is remote, calling their extension rings their mobile phone.

Integrating these sites and users in this way provides a cohesive and transparent method to bringing users together without requiring them to jump through hoops to contact colleagues and other working groups. Once in place, it allows your employees to spend their time doing their jobs and not fighting with their tools.

[ This sponsored article was written by IDG Creative Lab, a partner of PCWorld. ]

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