by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, August, 2001
This is the second part of the coverage of broadband connections, A.K.A. big - and fast - pipes to the Internet. We are finishing business justification and moving on to the broadband choices available.

If you have a multiple branch organization or have employees who regularly work from home or out in the field, your broadband connection can be the foundation for a Virtual Private Network or VPN. Using either hardware or software, information is heavily encoded and passed between the main site and the remote site, allowing the remote users to log into the main local area network as if they were attached via a local workstation.

Obviously, the practicality of this arrangement varies both with the respective speeds of the communication connections (local and remote) and the planning that went into the underlying configuration of both system and applications software. If both ends of the connection are high-speed broadband, it will be a lot easier to get work done than if one end is a dial-up connection. Amazingly, if only a single computer is on the remote end, even the lowest speed broadband connection can be practical. Configuration and planning are the keys to getting the best out of this arrangement. Using client-server databases and loading all programs on the remote computers can make a slower-speed connection almost like being locally connected. Dial-up connections won't perform nearly as well, but might be appropriate for limited tasks.

VPN security and encoding are done either by dedicated hardware or by software running on a server at the main site and on the remote workstation. Amazingly, if you select the appropriate products, you can run hardware VPN at the main site and choose either hardware or software for the remote computers. Whenever possible, I prefer hardware VPNs because of their speed and, especially, their reliability. Individual Windows-based computers, in particular, have not proven to be either very reliable or very hacking resistant. Also, running Microsoft-designed security software is like having a target a giant target on your back. It's the most popular to hack. Software VPNs work, but, if the client can afford it, I suggest they stick with hardware at least for the broadband-equipped remote computers.

One hidden benefit of a broadband connection is the ease in which computers can be updated. It is quite easy to run Windows Update and various other semiautomatic updating procedures either built into software or using third-party utilities (I really like Big Fix from on multiple computers at once by simply running from machine to machine every time there is a waiting period (for a reboot, or the infamous hourglass). By the time you have started the process on the last machine in a series, the first one is waiting for your next response. I've done up to 14 computers at once using this method. (Warning - Don't try this while people are working on the computers. This is for non-work hours only. You didn't actually want to have a personal life on weekends and evenings, did you?)

There is a huge savings in both actual update time and organizing time in doing a mass semiautomatic update via a broadband connection as compared to individually downloading and tracking updates and applying them manually. (Of course, you can use your own judgment for really huge downloads such as a new version of Internet Explorer.) Even software disbursement utilities require more time and effort. Also, remember, a computer that has ANY access to e-mail or the Internet, no matter how slow, absolutely must be kept updated to avoid security problems. (I'll have more on that later in the series.)

Okay. Let's assume you have bought into one or more of my arguments in favor of having a broadband connection. Or, perhaps you've come up with some of your own. (Playing games and downloading porn don't count!) Now, you have to figure out what type of broadband connection you want to use.

If you need the highest level of reliability, with guarantees and nonperformance penalties, and have the bucks, then select a T-1 line (1.544mbps - millions of bits per second) or a fractional T-1 line (obviously, some fraction of 1.544mbps). T-1 lines have much faster and much more expensive big brothers if you really have money to burn, but I won't be covering them in this series.

The T-1 family is also the traditional technology for direct, one-to-one connections between offices and, via a technology called frame relay, pooled access (one-to-many and many-to-many connections). T-1 or its big brothers, are preferred to a VPN for the truly security conscious, since your lines never hit the Internet. You can also use multiple T-1 lines for extra aggregate speed or for redundancy.

The T-1 family can be very expensive, depending upon your location. A few years ago, before Ameritech had switched frame relay (billed by the amount of data), I put together a one-to-many bid for a client using plain frame relay (billed at the rated speed for 24x7, whether you use it or not) for two full T-1 lines into a main office and various speeds ranging from 256kbps to 384kbps into 10 branch offices, all in the Chicago area. Not including the price for the hardware needed, the bill was estimated to be more than $72,000 - PER MONTH! They declined. We are talking about the possibility of putting in a DSL-based (Digital Subscriber Line) VPN for them later this year for noticeably less than that price per year with most of the hardware thrown in for free.

If you use T-1, watch out for the CIR (Certified Information Rate), which is, essentially, the minimum rate you might get. I've seen bids for 384kbps fractional T-1 lines with only a 9600bps CIR! That means during busy times, like during the business day, you would be better off using a modem, and an old model at that.

One sort of fake-out broadband connection uses several modems connected to a "little black box" that aggregates the combined bandwidth of multiple POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) lines to approximate a fairly low-speed broadband connection. These were popular for a while and are still sold in cases where absolutely nothing else is practical. However, true broadband connections are available for less than the cost of the multiple phone lines and multiple Internet dial-up accounts need to make this solution work. I suspect that this method is actually losing market share as few new installations are done and old installations are being replaced by true broadband connections.

Next month I will continue covering broadband options, including those that aren't quite as obscure as the aforementioned multi-modem solution.

©2001, Wayne M. Krakau