Ask Cisco: How do I improve collaboration among multiple offices and remote users?
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Remote services generally revolve around a couple core technologies—voice, video, and mobile. Both voice and video should be tightly integrated into all of your office locations and should also extend to the home office for remote workers and be available to employees on the go.
If you’re like many small businesses, you likely have a fairly traditional network layout: two or more sites and an array of mobile and remote workers. If you’re currently using traditional phone service at each location, you’re likely using a separate private branch exchange (PBX) system 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 might be limited to one room at each site with remote users connecting 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, such as unified communications (UC).
Before you embark on a UC installation, you need to determine whether each location has enough available bandwidth. 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 Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections. In other places, you may be able to use Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) or other WAN technologies to deliver secure networking between the sites; however, bandwidth and latency calculations should be made in advance in order to eliminate problems down the road.
Mobile and remote workers won’t be tied to the same networks as the main office, and their usage patterns are for a single user. In most cases, then, residential or “lite business” cable, DSL, or fiber connections will function well for their purposes.
Building out the network with these connections revolves around several key components. The first is firewalls and routers. These devices sit at the edge of every network—including the user working from home—and 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, reducing time, cost and complexity.
For instance, the main office may have a Cisco 2901 or 2911 router that can not only provide routing and firewall services for that location but can also be used for analog and digital voice services to connect to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). For remote sites with fewer users, the Cisco SR 500 Series or 800 Series routers deliver the same voice, video, and data services with a connection to the main office.
Teleworkers can also use a Cisco RV220W Wireless Network Security Firewall or SR 500 router to provide firewall protection as well as optional wireless. And with a Cisco IP phone that connects back to headquarters via Cisco Unified Communications 500, Business Edition 3000, or Business Edition 6000 (depending on the size of your business and its needs), the teleworker’s phone becomes just another extension on the overall company phone system.
The more advanced platforms such as the Cisco Business Edition 3000 and 6000 even allow mobile users to leverage Cisco VPN clients that are available for many smartphones and bring the resources available on the company LAN into the palm of their hand over wireless connections. Mobile devices can also be used as extensions so that calls to a remote user’s desk phone rings their mobile phone.
Integrating your various locations and users in this way provides a cohesive and transparent method for bringing users together without requiring them to jump through hoops to contact and collaborate with colleagues. Once in place, a converged voice, video, and data network allows your employees to spend their time doing their jobs and not fighting with their tools.