With an increasing interest in working remotely, virtual private networks (VPNs) are being touted by some as one of the major solutions that customers are going to be looking at.
John Grant, CEO of integrator Data#3, says its current experience with customers, and within the market generally, is that serious consideration is being given to virtual private networking.
"Clearly the impact of the Internet as a business medium is starting to take effect and underpinning what is the networking infrastructure to support the Internet economy," Grant says. "We've been calling this out now for 12 months and our feeling from our customers is that this is now becoming a reality."
Grant believes e-commerce is going to continue to grow and be one of the major drivers for technology infrastructure over the next couple of years.
And Grant isn't alone in believing there will be an increasing interest in VPNs.
According to Robert Harkness, general manager of Dovetail Distribution, when it first started looking at VPN technology three years ago, it was definitely a "black art".
"A number of manufacturers offered VPN solutions but to get them working you needed to be a rocket scientist," Harkness says. "Now it's different. Whilst some pitfalls remain, you still need to know what you are doing. With good planning and product knowledge the solutions install easily and work well. Many of our resellers have happy customers to prove this."
This feeling is echoed by Forrester Research in a paper it released late last year. In it Forrester asserted that, after years of limited adoption, "the VPN market is finally poised for widespread adoption". It also cites the "real business advantages" of a properly managed VPN, such as the ability to connect to new ad-hoc business partners quickly and securely.
But the Forrester research also warns that today's VPN solutions still suffer from problems such as broken extranet functionality, scary complexity and outrageous pricing.
Ross Chiswell, CEO at specialist wireless networking distributor Integrity Data Systems, says the approaches to VPNs are evolving. "[It's becoming] more and more important for organisations to have that additional security when they're using an open communication platform," Chiswell says. This could be the Internet, it could be a combination of broadband radio and satellite, it could be wireless LAN.
He thinks VPNs are now expanding to include single client-to-branch or user-to-user virtual private networks.
From a reseller perspective, it's going to mean different products doing different things. "They're [the reseller] going to have to understand the benefits and limitations of one approach over another," Chiswell warns.
"Their knowledge in this particular area is going to have to evolve and change," he says. "They're going to have to understand [what] their customers are going to need more." This could mean additional training required for both technical and sales staff.
Sebastian Rice, senior marketing manager at network hardware vendor Enterasys, says that, whilst VPNs have been in the market for four or five years, we're now seeing them used in new ways. He believes this year people will re-evaluate areas where businesses need high security or where they have a number of telecommuting or remote access staff.
Bert Forbes, managing director of the Asia Pacific WAN/VPN business unit at networking vendor Lucent Technologies, is upbeat about the opportunities out there for the channel selling VPNs.
Forbes points to the way remote access solutions and VPNs are deployed by enterprise customers. "Resellers in the middle can provide the services and products," he suggests.
Danny Ng, business director of Internet Solutions, Asia Pacific, at networking solutions vendor Nortel Networks, agrees that there are plenty of opportunities for the channel in selling VPNs.
"One of the great things about VPNs is that they are much more than just a box," he says. "There's a lot of integration . . . from implementing a network device to delivering a service."
He suggests channel companies ensure they have the right technical skills, such as in IP-level technology like security authentication, firewall and encryption. "Those functions don't exist in isolation and need to be integrated, which translates into a nice service opportunity for the channel."
Integrity Data's Chiswell believes the underlying need for corporate clients to protect their infrastructure or have access to their data is going to be the driver for more and more opportunities for resellers to specialise.
"They'll need to understand the client's issues, the client's risks and understand what technology they can use to overcome that for them."
Chiswell advises resellers to train up their sales people, as well as their technical people. "You can no longer [get] by on just looking at a spec sheet," he warns. "The days when you had a sales person who supplied a price for a particular item out of a catalogue are over. Resellers now need to be partners to the clients they work with . . . rather than just provide prices."
Channel companies that are educating their staff are working in the right way. But he cautions that resellers who are just providing shop-front, prices, and maybe support for the products they're offering, aren't helping their customers address technology issues.
"Resellers that are only providing prices are destined to suffer a lingering death as margins just continue to shrink," Chiswell says. "They need to provide service and integration. They have to provide a combination between consultant, technology analyst and partner."
According to Lucent's Forbes, to better educate enterprise customers, resellers definitely need to do in-house technical training, particularly in presales. He suggests they make sure they know what products and services are available in this space.
"[It's] the early bird that catches the worm' - the better educated and prepared [the channel is] today to educate customers, the better situated and placed they will be tomorrow," he says.
An integrated approach
Peter Sandilands, regional manager Australia/New Zealand at security software vendor Check Point Software Technologies, suggests some of the opportunities for the channel lie in upgrading or integration work. He also notes that other technologies can be sold at the same time, such as authentication or notebooks.
And Enterasys' Rice says it's all part of evaluating the security requirements of the customer. "The VPN technology quite often uses encrption [and] needs to be integrated into the security framework, so there are a lot of consulting and design areas which need to be discussed."
Rice adds that businesses in Australia and Asia are starting to take realistic security measures. "We're seeing a real trend in the market." According to Rice, one of the issues resellers need to be looking at is helping the customer to enable their staff to work more effectively. "Companies [are] having people working from home more often - staff able to log in where ever they happen to be," he says. "From a channel perspective, we see them having a good opportunity to go into businesses to tighten up [their ability] to communicate safely with business partners and staff."
He emphasises that the solutions the channel deploys for its customers need to be cost-effective, from both a capital and running cost point of view.
Chiswell adds that, in addition to resellers needing to educate their own people, they also need to make sure they're working with the right vendors and getting vendor support.
And the idea of partnering goes further, with channel companies sometimes needing to partner with other companies overseas or in regional areas to provide a national or international capability. "VPNs by their nature typically tend to be from a head office to a smaller location, so they therefore tend to span geographical locations," Chiswell says.
In the future, according to Chiswell, we're probably going to get specialist resellers that are very good at this type of work. He also thinks we'll see smarter clients who are going to have a better understanding of what they need.
Nortel's Ng is expecting steady growth in the VPN market, something he attributes to the cost of access becoming more affordable and also the coverage of high-speed access increasing.
And Brian Allsopp, channels development manager at networking giant Cisco Systems, believes some of the issues surrounding VPNs as a remote access solution, such as DSL, are going to be addressed. He says that we're getting a more mobile workforce. "If I look at the corporate environment, we have a highly mobile workforce [which] needs to operate here, at home, at airports . . ." And that is where Allsopp sees an opportunity for the channel to work with corporates.
"Because it's a business solution, resellers need to work out how they can partner with telcos. DSL is coming into the mainstream this year [and] is going to enable high-speed access working from home."
From the customer perspective, Allsopp thinks security is probably the biggest issue for customers. "How secure is the solution going to be? [It] has to be easy to use from a user perspective and work over the different mediums . . ."
Paul Wilkinson, senior architect at systems integrator Com Tech Communications, thinks there's going to be a lot more focus on VPNs this year. "The technology is becoming more accepted and there's more choice of products," he says.
Wilkinson believes that, over the next couple of years, we'll start to see a lot more interest in digital certificates and strong authentication, smart card technology. "I think companies will look at more secure authentication hardware."
And Dovetail's Harkness sees a bright future for VPNs, although he cautions that it's still important to understand the limitations and carefully plan implementation. "For the systems integrator with the right skills, VPN offers an alternative to falling margins in other areas."