One way technology can improve the quality of your life is with a Virtual Private Network. For an independent advisor, a VPN make sense. I know how valuable they are from my own experience.
In fact, right now, I am editing this story from my home even though the file is actually located on a network server in my office. That’s what a VPN lets you do; it lets you access files from a remote location.
I hooked up a VPN between my home and my office about six months ago and have been using it pretty much every day. In fact, I’d be lost without it–lost to my wife and kids, that is.
My office is located only about a half mile from my home. It’s a 90-second drive door to door. But I like to work late at night or early in the morning and don’t want to have to run into the office every time I need a document.
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The VPN allows me to steal away for 20 minutes of work between taking my son bike riding and playing basketball with my daughter. I can access all of the files that I would have if I were at the office. Right now, I am writing this story while my wife puts the kids to bed. I can spend about 30 minutes working on a file that I would not have access to without the VPN. I am virtually at my office, hence the name. If you’re like me and you like to work at home as well as in your office, then a VPN is not that hard or expensive to create.
Zip It in a Briefcase
But before I tell you about the virtues of a VPN, let me offer a couple of less costly alternatives. Before I try to convince you to spend your money on VPN technology you may not need, you may be able to get away with some practical alternatives.
If you’re a sole practitioner or if you have only one or two staffers in your office, you may be able to get way with making copies of files every night and taking them home. This is a simple low-cost solution that will work for a lot of advisors.
Most computers now come with Zip drives that use disks capable of storing up to 250 megs of information, or you can get your computer built with a drive that writes to CDs and then you can store up to 700 megs of information on a CD. Both drives are sold as add-ons to an existing computer. You can keep your most important client files on a Zip disk or CD and shuttle it back and forth from your home to your office.
The best way to know if this solution will work for you is to try it out for few weeks. If you want to do this, try to use Microsoft Briefcase. Most people have seen the icon for Briefcase on their desktop but few actually know what it is. In short, it’s a program that lets you synchronize files on two computers, and Microsoft gives it to you with Office. If you work on files from your home, you can use Briefcase to synchronize the files with their counterparts on your office computer when you finish working on them.
Say, for instance, that you want to update your office computer with files that you worked on at home. First, you would copy to a disk what you worked on at home. At your office, you would just insert the disk into your office computer. Briefcase will automatically update the files on your office computer with the modified versions. You do not need to move modified files out of Briefcase or delete the existing copies on your office computer.
A couple of issues could come up, however. First, you may find that the 250 megs on a Zip disk or even the 700 megs on a CD are simply not enough. You’ll want to have all your portfolio reports in your home as well as the office, or you’ll want to have other files that eat up more disk space. Also, writing to a CD-ROM requires patience. It takes about 80 minutes to write 700 megs to a CD using a 16X CD-ROM drive, which is the speed most of them are now coming out of the box with.
The real problem is that it gets confusing knowing which is the most recent version of a file. For instance, maybe you’ll compose a letter to a client and want to finish it at home and you put it on your disk. If you don’t open it for a couple of days, you may forget which version is newer–the one on your disk or the one at the office. Even if you use Briefcase, you could still become confused.
When I’ve to tried to remember to bring home files or tried using Briefcase, this was a problem for me. Most advisors are probably more responsible than I am, however. And Briefcase can probably work better if you use it consistently and learn all its tricks, which I admittedly did not. Still, my guess is that for most financial advisors, schlepping files back and forth from the office on a disk will cause confusion and be a nuisance.
Lift a Laptop
Another alternative is to buy a laptop and carry it back and forth. Steve Gordonson, a partner in our firm, is quite happy with this system for working at the office and home. You don’t have to worry about synchronizing files because you’re working on the same machine and same files in both locations.
To do it right, you’ll need a powerful laptop. Steve recently bought a Dell Inspiron 8000. The notebook can be built with 256 megs of RAM, a 20-gigabyte hard drive and a one-gig processor to be as fast and powerful as a desktop computer. At a cost of about $4,300, it’s pricey, but it may make sense if you use it at home and at the office and it’s taking the place of two computers.
By the way, my reference to Dell in no way should be taken as an endorsement. We own about eight Dells in our company and have also purchased computers from Gateway and Micron. They all sell powerful notebooks. Dell overall has been the best experience for us but Dell is far from perfect. Service is an issue with all of these companies, including Dell.
Back to using a notebook for home and the office: If you’re on the computer several hours a day, using a notebook may not be comfortable, even though it comes with a 15-inch display. You can buy a docking station for about $200. With this piece of hardware, you plug your laptop into the docking station and you can use a normal size desktop keyboard and an external monitor. With the docking station hooked into a keyboard and a 19-inch monitor, you’ll forget you’re working on a laptop; it will feel just like a desktop machine.
Using a laptop to shuttle back and forth from home is a good solution if you’re a sole practitioner and all of your important client files reside on your office computer. I’d guess this would be the way to go for about 80% of our readers. But there are some issues and limitations if you choose this path.
First, the Dell Inspiron and other power notebooks are not for frequent travelers. The Inspiron is heavy, weighing in at 7.9 pounds–and that’s without the extra battery, power cords, and other accessories you’ll often carry. It’s no problem carrying this computer from your car to your office, but it can be heavy to haul for a 10- or 20-minute walk across an airport or commuting by mass transit from the office to your home.
Also, this solution will have its limits if you have a larger firm and are pulling files from your server all day. In Steve Gordonson’s case, he’s a programmer and leaves code that he’s writing on his laptop. He’s the only one accessing the files he uses most often. When Steve needs to bring home a file that’s on our server, he’s back to synchronizing files between his laptop and the office computer–the server.
Servers for The Big Guys
For advisors in larger firms who are accessing data off their network file server, the synchronization issue could be a problem. For instance, if you’re running db-CAMs or Centerpiece on your office computer, the laptop should work just fine. But if you run these programs and have all your client data on a network server at the office and the company staff is updating the client data every day, it can get very messy synchronizing those files with the server.
Instead of having to make copies of documents and bring them home on a CD or Zip disk, this is when a VPN will become a good choice.
My company has 14 PCs hooked into a Windows NT network. All of the documents that employees work on are pulled from a server. Using a server for a small office is smart–mandatory if you have more than a few people accessing the same files.
A file server is a computer where all of the data files used by your staff can reside. So, if they want to type a form letter welcoming a new client, for instance, the form letter is on the server and they run Word on their local machine to call it up. Everyone in the office has access to the server files because all the office computers are connected to the server.
A VPN makes it possible to access your server files from a remote location or from multiple remote locations. The VPN uses the Internet to connect your remote location to your office server.
You can create a VPN using hardware or software. In my company’s VPN, we used hardware. Hardware is the best solution when you have multiple PCs on both sides of the VPN.
In my home, I have several PCs where my wife and I work. If I had used software instead of hardware to create the VPN, I would have needed to install a program and configure it on each of the PCs. In addition, the VPN software demands a lot of processor resources, and that can slow you down maddeningly when you’re working on the VPN.
An alternative is using hardware at the main office–the side of the VPN where you have many computers–and software at the remote location. This is probably a workable solution if you have a home office with one machine that has a fast processor of at least 750 MHz. The VPN client software can be bought from the same company that makes the VPN hardware.
If your office is running a network on Windows 2000 Server, the current version of the network operating system made by Microsoft, then you get the VPN software for free as part of the system. But configuring this is fairly complicated even for a network consultant.
The hardware you’ll need to run for your VPN is a router. A router is a switch that receives and sends packets of information over the Internet. It takes an e-mail message or a Web page and routes it to the right PC in your network.
Basically, every packet of information from an e-mail or Web page that comes over the Internet has a source and destination address. The address is called an Internet Protocol address, and every computer has a unique IP address. The computer that generates a message is the source address. Based on the destination address that’s in the message packet, a router forwards the information to a particular PC on your network.
A VPN router has special software that takes this a step further. It identifies a source’s IP address. Your PC at home has a specific IP address that the VPN router is set up to recognize. The router is programmed to allow only that unique IP address of your home PC into your office network via the Internet.
In addition, the router software will encrypt and decrypt messages going to and coming from the home PC. Even though the information is going across the Internet, which means it might bounce information packets to a series of servers and routers on the Internet while going from your office PC to your home PC, no one but you can read the encrypted information. So, if you’re at home and call up a file with personal client data, it will be sent over the Internet with encryption. When the information hits your home, your VPN router or VPN software will decrypt the information.