How do you move your goods and receive your shipments today? How would you have moved your goods and received your shipments 100 years ago? Today, most likely a truck is involved; 100 years ago, you would have relied on the railway system.

The railroad was always a point-to-point means of travel, with little tolerance for "leaving the tracks." Therefore, to benefit from this means of shipment, your place of business had to be located along the route of the railway system. If it were too distant, you had to invest substantial dollars in developing your own infrastructure to connect to the railway system. (This was even truer in the days of the steamship.)

With the advent of the truck and a developed interstate and intrastate road system, a new notion of shipping was introduced. This concept was based on leveraging a comprehensive travel infrastructure that has accessibility to nearly anyplace on a contiguous land mass.

No longer are you committed to living near the railways or the ports. Your business can locate wherever you want and it will still be competitive in getting goods to market and receiving raw materials from suppliers. And the decision to move locations, or set up temporary locations, is based on economic considerations more exhaustive than the simple question, "how close is it to the railways?"

As businesses have adopted computer technology to move data and to communicate within an organization, one business consideration has always been, "how can our various locations communicate among themselves in a fast, secure and cost-effective manner?" Over the last couple of decades, the answer offered by the telecommunications industry has been a wide-area network.

These WANs use "dedicated leased lines" to transport data, voice, and more recently even fax. Still, WANs have some drawbacks in fact, they're a lot like the old railroad system.

Despite redundancies that may be built in, they are closed and inflexible to a short-term new location. WANs are missing the frequent entrance and exit ramps of the road system. There are no stops along the way.

And because the business relies so much on communication, redundancy becomes critical. For example, if the dedicated line runs between Baltimore and Los Angeles, you may want another line that takes a different path between the two points, in case of "a blockage on the tracks." The WAN is now also becoming very expensive to maintain.

So what is the alternative? The Internet is more like the roadway system. It is international, with many redundant paths (called backbones), many on- and offramps (called Internet Service Providers or ISPs), and is accessible without special railway cars (as little as a PC and a modem).

Building a WAN on this infrastructure would be not a physically unique private network, but a Virtual Private Network.

Note that some telecommunications vendors have used the VPN acronym to describe WAN solutions that are not Internet-based. For our discussion, the solution is specifically Internet-based. Thus, anyone with Internet access worldwide can participate in this adaptable WAN. With this choice, you can provision the network on-the-fly.

Besides recently helping a client begin using a VPN, I discussed VPNs with three people: Eric Owrutsky of the Apex Group, a reader of this column and a user of Internet-based VPN technology; Steve Granek, the Maryland Regional Manager for VPNet Technologies, a provider of VPN solutions; and a consultant from Charlotte, N.C. who has set up two such networks, including one involving a Czech Republic-to-North Carolina network.

There are two basic models of usage for a VPN. One is for quick remote access of a corporate home-office system. While this will often involve using a Citrix server at the home office, this is a faster, shareable, and more reliable alternative to a room full of modems, many dial-in telephone lines, and less expensive remote communication software. Depending on the number of users, long-distance charges, amount of time that the remote user will be attached, and applications used, VPN may be more cost-effective.

(Citrix is a communication server that is compatible with Windows NT and Novell networks to allow for remote connections. This may be used with standard dial-up lines as well. A VPN implementation of Citrix can improve its cost-effectiveness, but is not necessary.)

The second is for remote access support for applications that allow the remote user to act like a local user using a protocol called Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). While the result is eliminating the room of modems, etc., this model is a more direct incoming connection and must be even more attentive to security considerations.

In a future column, I will examine VPN issues, considerations, and opportunities that you must address in your organization.

Chaim Yudkowsky, CPA is the director of management consulting services at Grabush, Newman & Co., P.A., a Baltimore-based regional certified public accounting and management consulting firm.

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