Article

New remote access system cuts costs

Paul Korzeniowski, Contributor

As IT manager at Western Financial Group, Doug Bennett has to maintain a delicate balance between keeping costs low and maintaining the proper level of security. That balancing act led him to examine ways to replace the company's application cornerstone, Citrix Presentation Server.

The Citrix Presentation Server enables users to access applications without running them on local PCs.

"The maintenance costs for the Citrix product kept rising and rising, Bennett said, "so we needed to make a change."

Change has been a constant for the Alberta, Canada-based financial services company, which has been serving Western Canada since 1996. Beginning with just one agent, the corporation now employees 600 people who provide more than 400,000 customers with a full range of insurance, financial services and banking products. The agents work in 80 remote offices, which range in size from one to two people at the small sites to 25 to 30 in the larger offices.

After becoming IT manager in the spring of 2005, Bennett completed an inventory of Western Financial Group's IT systems. "Citrix was adding new features to its system," he said, but the enhancements, such as compression of high bandwidth graphic application data , "were not items that we needed."

With its maintenance contract set to expire in the summer of 2007, the firm began to search for alternatives. The requirements were simple: the system needed to deliver strong security for remote workers

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and perform load-balance processing chores among more than a dozen servers in the company's data center.

In searching for a new product, Bennett and his colleagues scoured the Internet and attended a presentation about Citrix alternatives. They eventually whittled down the list of potential suppliers to Ericom Software and 2X Software; a couple of factors pushed them toward the former.

Western Financial Group liked the security model of Ericom's PowerTerm WebConnect secure remote access application platform. "The product does not rely on a simple [Real Time Transport] protocol to pass information through our firewall," explained Bennett. "Instead, it uses a JavaScript to get to the server. We felt more secure about that approach because it does not leave an open port on the firewall."

Another plus was Ericom had customer support representatives in North America. 2X Software's support center was located in Europe, so there was some doubt that someone would be available to answer an inquiry if it occurred late in the day. Finally, the company had some previous experience with Ericom. One of Western Financial Group's banking divisions used its terminal-emulation product and liked the customer support.

So last summer, the company began to implement the new system. The process went smoothly with only one hiccup: there was a compatibility issue with Microsoft's Active Directory that prevented users from logging into the server. That problem was resolved with a few weeks and the migration was completed at the end of September.

While the Ericom product has worked well, Bennett hopes to see one enhancement. The company would like to be able to create separate images for its different business units (insurance, banking) and then store them on multiple servers. Currently, they need to store each image on a distinct server.

But Western Financial Group is willing to put up with that inconvenience -- which Ericom plans to address in a future release -- because it has been able to cut its maintenance costs by approximately 60%.

"Some other companies may need the extra features found with Citrix, but in our case, Ericom was a perfect fit," said Bennett. "It provides us with the load balancing, user security model, and external access feature that we need at a reasonable cost."

About the author:
Paul Korzeniowski is a veteran freelance writer, who specializes in security issues. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.


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