VPNs for Small Businesses

New products make it more affordable for small and medium-size businesses to take advantage of virtual private network (VPN) technology. VPNs have attracted the attention of large, distributed enterprises because they let businesses create links across public and private networks to customers, branch offices, and telecommuters for less money than the cost of a traditional private network.

The choice of which VPN is best for a smaller business often comes down to how much programming you are willing to do. One such product that you can use to build a VPN inexpensively–although you’ll have to tinker with it a bit–is Microsoft’s BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS). SBS delivers elements of its parent BackOffice suite, including NT 4.0 Server, Exchange Server 5.0, SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 1.0, fax and modem services, and a simplified administration console. Another product, Lotus’s Domino Intranet Starter Pack (DISP) 2.0, includes the Domino 4.6.1 server, five licenses for either Notes or browser clients, and the SiteCreator tool for generating and managing 12 business applications.

Novell has Microsoft’s SBS in its sights with NetWare for Small Business (NSB) 4.11, which combines a single-site version of Novell Directory Services (NDS) with GroupWise 5.2, NetWare Multi-Protocol Router, Network Address Translator, Netscape FastTrack Web Server, and other third-party database, fax, virus, and backup products. Netscape has no small business suit; instead it partners with Concentric Network Corporation to offer Netscape Virtual Office, an on-line intranet center hosting private discussion, e-mail, calendaring, and other applications for a monthly fee. Microsoft continues to upgrade NT Server, which is part of SBS, with capabilities that improve its viability as a VPN platform. The NT 4 Option Pack, Routing and Remote Access Services (RRAS) update, and Service Pack 4 add an enhanced IIS 4.0, Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), Microsoft Message Queuing Services (MSMQ), Index Server, Certificate Server and SSL 3.0, and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), all for free if you already have NT Server. You can upgrade Small Business Server to take advantage of NT’s new tools with careful planning. RRAS lets you tunnel into a PPTP-enabled server, and then to any workstation on the internal network. However, this defeats the security provided by Proxy Server 1.0, forcing an upgrade to the 2.0 version that supports packet filtering.

You’ll also need to apply a new Proxy Server hotfix to repair support for multihoming (the ability to host more than one site on a server), as well as an SBS service pack to allow use of Internet Explorer 4.01. Still, the hotfix and service pack upgrades are free, and the cost of the Proxy Server upgrade is just $505, which makes this solution almost $2000 less than buying BackOffice 4.0. The SBS solution won’t be suitable for some scenarios. For example, SBS disables NT trusts between domains, limits SQL Server database size to 1GB, and does not support Exchange directory replication. These changes cripple SBS’s flexibility for use in satellite offices. Microsoft is readying an upgrade path from SBS to Back Office 4.0 that will add the full version of SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 2.0, Exchange Server 5.5, Systems Management Server (SMS), SNA Server, and Site Server, but at press time, pricing was not determined. While SBS, RRAS, and the Option Pack provide the infrastructure for business-to-business communications, you need programming expertise, especially in Visual Basic and Visual InterDev, to make it all work. Domino Intranet Starter Pack on the other hand, comes ready with a secure, browser-based application suite.

Contact management, customer tracking, company forms, job postings, project management, registration, discussion, and document library databases are all part of the package. You can manage sites remotely via a browser or the native Notes client. Lotus’s DISP includes the latest Domino server and on-line documentation, but you’ll need to buy the Notes Designer client to customize or add applications. Domino 4.6.1 comes with a Certificate Server and sample registration templates for SSL 3.0 client authentication, but DISP only uses the less-secure password technology. Multihoming will not work with SSL certificates; the work-around requires partitioning with the more costly ($1000 additional) Advanced Services version of the server. NSB, DISP, and SBS are tactical products, balancing a mix of features and services that evangelize their underlying architectures without cannibalizing full-blown suite sales. Novell is counting on GroupWise’s user friendliness and advanced document management tools to retain mind share in the face of NT’s application services momentum. Lotus continues to provide a Web-based application development environment that outperforms Microsoft in its own NT backyard. And Microsoft moves steadily forward, integrating security, messaging, indexing, standards-based file formats, and directory services that the competition can’t afford to give away.

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