Feature: Vendors start sweating over VPNs

While vendors squabble over market share in the emerging space of Internet virtual private networks (VPNs), many users are taking their first steps with the technology.

Held back by the security, reliability and performance issues associated with sending private data across the Internet, many companies are not rushing to deploy VPNs before evaluating the market and products available.

In fact, some companies are even choosing alternatives such as frame relay or extranets, citing Internet bandwidth and performance problems as risks.

That's exactly the case for MasterCard International, which decided against an Internet VPN in favour of a global frame relay network when it began to replace its worldwide network last year.

"We thought about VPNs, but we needed guaranteed performance for transaction processing, and the Internet can't provide that," said Rob Thornhill, vice president of network services at the St Louis-based credit-card giant. "If it could, we'd have gone with a VPN."

Similarly, Nigel Maitland, AAPT spokesperson for the Victoria One statewide network project, said running a VPN over the Internet can lead to problems for the user associated with bandwidth capacity and performance requirements.

Maitland said the Victorian Department of Education, Vic One's first customer, avoided problems by deploying separate "Internet-style" VPNs for teachers and students across the state that resemble an intranet and extranet. Maitland said this allows AAPT to manage the network to achieve full performance.

Whether the public Internet is ready for VPNs is a tough question to answer, say users and analysts. At what point does the Internet start and where does it end? If organisations want guaranteed performance from their carriers, the latter must have control over the network to ensure efficiency. That control comes only from owning the physical network.

For Doug Rosser, communications consultant, Asia Pacific, for conglomerate BTR, Internet reliability and bandwidth capacity for a VPN can depend on the Internet service provider (ISP) used to link to the Internet.

Connecting to a "good" ISP is key to deploying a VPN successfully, Rosser said.

Knowing an ISP has adequate "head room" and can provide "reasonable" connection is important and often makes running a VPN easier, he said.

According to Rosser, BTR has spent the last six to eight months investigating VPN technology for data services.

Although it is still at the "pencil and paper" stage, Rosser said deploying a VPN would provide cost-saving mechanisms for the company, which communicates with countries throughout the world. Rosser anticipates the VPN will be used for non time-critical traffic such as messaging and light telnet sessions.

Currently trialling VPN technology from Shiva against the BorderManager solution from Novell in two separate projects in different units of the business, Rosser said BTR would make a decision next year on the solution to be rolled out throughout the organisation.

Also happy with the performance capabilities offered by ISPs, Angela Dorries, analyst programmer for Mincom Petroleum Technology, said the organisation is ready to bring its new VPN solution online within days.

According to Dorries, ISDN links to a Brisbane ISP should provide Mincom Petroleum with adequate bandwidth capabilities to suit its business needs. Mincom Petroleum Technology is a small business unit within Queensland IT company Mincom, which is also preparing to deploy a VPN.

According to Dorries, Mincom Petroleum is interested in deploying a VPN for data communication between its offices in Brisbane, Houston, Calgary, Winchester and Aberdeen and to allow remote users access to the network.

With its head office located in Brisbane, Dorries said sales people and consultants are always in need of getting information on accounting and technical issues of the organisation.

By deploying a VPN, Mincom Petroleum will be giving people in outside offices the ability to get information from Brisbane headquarters quickly and efficiently, Dorries said.

Mincom Petroleum previously used e-mail, FTP file transfer and even postal mail to send data between offices, Dorries said. Looking to replace this "cumbersome" and slow system, which often involved a 24-hour turnaround, she anticipates the VPN will speed up communication between the offices as well as reduce international telecommunication costs, Dorries said.

"ISDN links to the ISP in Brisbane are the main cost [for the Brisbane office], as opposed to international phone calls," she said.

According to Dorries, all offices except Houston will be standardising on the same VPN solution.

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