The technology required to
support remote working is well established, but the wide range of
devices accountants use can present a challenge for IT managers.
Paul Golden investigates the latest technology available and
practices adopted by firms trying to stay abreast of the mobile
revolution.

Accountants and other professionals
are now routinely expected to be able to access email and other
work related programmes regardless of their location, often using
their own mobile computing devices.

The core platform that enables this
access is the virtual private network, or VPN, which allows offices
and remote computers to connect together securely. This network can
be created over either private networks, often owned by the
company, or more commonly public networks such as the internet.

Using a method called tunnelling, the
VPN use the same hardware infrastructure as existing internet or
intranet (internal network) links to connect devices that might be
separated by a few miles or by continents. VPNs enable users to
share files and access video conferencing and other services.

Specifically, they support at least
three different modes of use: internet remote access client
connections (for example, an employee working at home connecting to
the company network); LAN-to-LAN internetworking (creating a bridge
between two networks); and controlled access within an intranet (an
internal network where staff can communicate privately).

One of the obvious attractions of
setting up a virtual private network is that everything an
organisation needs to create the network is usually built into its
existing IT infrastructure.

Employees working from a fixed
location will typically access the VPN through their broadband
connection. When they are on the move, mobile broadband can be used
to access the company network, send and receive emails, download
documents and more.

Mobile broadband can be delivered
either through a subscription with a mobile service provider (where
the user plugs a small device into their laptop or connects through
their smart phone) or via WiFi at one of the thousands of access
sites located across many locations in Europe and beyond, in places
such as coffee shops and hotels. WiFi compatibility is now a common
feature of laptop computers.

 

PwC remote
workers

Many of PwC’s UK offices are moving to
a ‘hotelling’ system where teams have a designated space that
individuals check in to each day rather than a dedicated desk.

Some 7,000 staff have blackberries and
most have laptops and the capability to log in to its network from
home. The company’s VPN has been in place for more than a decade
and has enough capacity to allow all partners and staff in the UK
(around 15,000) to connect simultaneously.

In normal operation around 14,000
unique UK users connect at least once every month, making around
half am connections, remaining connected for am hours and
transferring about 17 terabytes of data every month.

To put that figure in perspective, a
single word contains about 32 bits of data and a terabyte is
equivalent to onemm pieces of data.

All these remote workers have access
to PwC’s secure ‘chat’ software, which is used for instant
messaging. Most have a telephone extension that allows them to
divert calls to a phone number at whatever location they are
working at, including mobiles and everyone can dial into their
voice mail externally.

This flexibility is made possible by a
technology known as voice over internet protocol or VoIP, which
anyone who has used Skype will be familiar with. VoIP services
reduce the cost of calls by transmitting conversations as packets
of data over the network, which only need to be sent when the
person on either end of the line is speaking.

VoIP is recognised as the most
significant advance in business telephony in recent years.

Voice information is converted into
digital information and sent over the internet and/or private
networks and then converted back into conventional telephone
signals before reaching the phone receiver at the other end.

Using internet technology to route
calls has a number of benefits, including reduced call costs and
staff remaining contactable on their extension, regardless of
whether they are working from their desk, home or another office
location.

In its early days the technology was
rather cumbersome – a bit like trying to communicate over a two way
radio, where only one person can speak at a time – but the delays
that made early VoIP services so frustrating to use have been
massively reduced.

As well as giving companies access to
services such as call forwarding and caller ID, VoIP makes it
easier to add new connections. Rather than having to install a
physical line, the customer can simply add another identity and
allocates that user a number.

 

Secure access

Photograph of iPadWhen it comes to
security, PwC recommends that consideration should not only be
given to the remote access technology itself (for example,
authentication method, encryption strength etc) but also the
integration with other IT security tools such as antivirus and
firewalls.

A firewall is a piece of hardware or
software that sits between a computer and the network to control
which computers can connect to it and what services they can use,
controlling the flow of communications across computers by
examining their source, destination and type and comparing them
with predetermined lists of allowed and disallowed
transactions.

The ability to provide support and
assistance to remote users is also an important factor and this may
extend to elements outside the control of the firm, such as home
broadband internet connections.

Less than a third of global businesses
are implementing encryption techniques or stronger identity and
access management controls to deal with the risks related to the
use of new technologies such as wireless access to corporate
networks, according to Ernst & Young’s 13th annual Global
Information Security Survey
.

Despite this, over half of respondents
said increased workforce mobility posed a considerable challenge to
information security due to widespread use of mobile computing
devices that allow people to access business information from
anywhere at any time. Employees are able to pick from a vast range
of mobile devices.

That newer, cheaper and faster devices
are being thrown out into the market every year has only compounded
their adoption in the workplace.

According to director of e-ssential
resources John Thornton it is vital to provide the most appropriate
tools for the job. For some, this may mean greater use of tablet
computers and other mobile computing devices for accessing data,
while for others it might mean providing a desktop PC and
facilities for working from home or greater reliance on a
laptop.

 

Software for
synchronisation

The Chartered Institute of Public
Finance Accountancy’s publication, Top Ten Tips for delivering
Efficiencies through Technology
refers to collaboration and
conferencing holding the promise of better and more frequent
communication between employees, improved teamwork, enhanced
efficiency, reduced project cycles, faster service delivery and
lower costs for employee training.

Instant messaging (known as IM) or
chat is a very simple and low cost way of improving collaboration
and enabling remote and mobile workers to quickly check details
with colleagues. Instant messenger services fill the niche between
a phone call and an email.

While email is ideal for
non-synchronised communications, IM offers the ability to identify
people who are online at the same time and exchange information in
near real time.

Collaboration software can create
virtual workspaces that bring together all the people, tools and
data for projects and programmes in one place. This means that they
can share files, presentations and calendars and chat online. All
the files and materials are automatically synchronised on each team
member’s computer, so that they are always working from the same
documents and they all receive automatic notifications when
documents are updated.

This software eliminates the situation
where people are constantly emailing different versions of
documents and working from out-of-date copies. It is particularly
powerful when working across a number of departments or
organisations in different locations and provides tools for
collaborating with suppliers, advisers and partner
organisations.

A report on flexible working produced
by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
explains that collaboration tools allow staff to create their own
virtual meeting room, share documents, deliver presentations and
even demonstrate applications in real time.

It also refers to the value of
technologies such as unified communications (UC), which allows
colleagues, partners and even clients to know where some is and how
they are best contacted at that moment.

HLB International CEO Rob Tautges,
says his firm’s systems are user name and password protected for
both access to its network and to the records management system,
although because it is an administrative network it doesn’t perform
audits and therefore doesn’t retain sensitive client
information.

“Videoconferencing is highly effective because you can see if
the person you are communicating with is understanding you, which
is especially useful if English is not their first language and you
are part of an international network,” Tautges says.

CASE STUDY: Grant Thornton
UK

Grant Thornton UK has approximately
85% laptop usage among its staff, all of which are enabled for
wireless access and run Vodafone secure remote access software.

The system devised by IT director Greg
Swift involves staff who are using their work laptop accessing the
corporate network via checkpoint secure VPN client software. For
those using their own devices, access is enabled through FirePass
SSL VPN, which enables access to corporate applications through a
web browser such as Internet Explorer.

The firm has also issued about 1700
Blackberries to staff, which can be used to access specific
applications including a people directory, an application that
brings all the available data on each customer into a single view –
known as CRM or customer relationship management – and a
relationship checker that searches for potential conflicts of
interest in new business opportunities.

Access to the corporate network is
controlled through two factor authentication, which means each user
has to input both their user name and password. This is further
matched against an electronic certificate or RSA token.

One of the challenges facing
organisations that enable remote working is ensuring that patches
(pieces of software that update or fix problems with computer
programs) are applied by all users.

“Most of the patches can be pushed out
so when employees connect via the VPN they receive them
automatically,” explains Swift.

“It is not feasible to deliver some of
the larger updates remotely but users will be informed that they
need to be done the next time they are in the office.”

All corporate data stored on remote
devices is encrypted and Grant Thornton has a 24 month refresh
cycle for its laptops, which sees about 50% of all machines changed
every year. The company has been using video conferencing since
2003, initially running it over ISDN (which split a conventional
phone line into two ‘channels’, one for data communication and one
for voice).

“We have since migrated some of our
videoconferencing devices to our IP [internet protocol] network,
which has made a massive difference to quality and reliability and
we are extending all our other devices to this platform,” says
Swift. Grant Thornton recently launched a project to develop an
integrated communications strategy that supports features such as
instant messaging as well as video conferencing. To provide a
mobile working strategy you have to support different methods of
access, according to Swift.

“In terms of expenditure, you need
predictability and visibility of costs. The solutions implemented
must not add to the IT support burden, which is difficult when
staff might need support in very remote locations at irregular
hours. Finally, you need to agree a protocol with clients for
allowing staff to access customer networks.”