It's easy to spend half the time out on the road these days. But to do business, you need access to applications and documents back on the company network. And you need at them via remote access that won't compromise security or break the bank.

Thankfully, secure, cost-effective remote communication can be accomplished via a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a private network that connects a remote computer to the home network via a public network such as the Internet. Using a public network like this makes the operation much less costly and therefore more affordable for small or mid-size businesses than constructing a private network.

Yet even on the Internet, which is prone to intrusion and hacking, VPNs ensure privacy via encryption technology, tunneling protocols, and security procedures. “In effect, the protocols, by encrypting data at the sending end and decrypting it at the receiving end, send the data through a ‘tunnel’ that cannot be ‘entered’ by data that is not properly encrypted,” says Paul Stamp, of Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass. research firm. “An additional level of security involves encrypting not only the data, but also the originating and receiving network addresses.”

Connecting remote employees

Many businesses are using virtual private networks to connect remote employees. According to the Gartner group, of Stamford, Conn., small businesses rate security technologies among the top three IT initiatives in the past year. More small businesses will increase their spending on security software this year than all other software categories, according to Forrester.

Small businesses can use the VPNs to access their IT systems remotely in a secure manner, says Anil Miglani, senior vice president of AMI Partners, of New York, a research company. “Thus, employees can connect to their e-mail as well as other business applications and also download data from their company servers even while traveling or working from home,” he says. “Similarly, small businesses can transfer data to and from their branches in a safe and secure manner. This increases productivity and also lowers the total costs.”

VPNs allow only authorized users to access the company data and also prevent the data from being intercepted by unauthorized third parties. “In an era when businesses are trying to increase their productivity while also ensuring the security of their data, VPNs have emerged as a critical tool,” Miglani says.

What to look for in VPNs

VPNs come in different forms. Small businesses can install either a software-based VPN on their servers or install an appliance that requires minimal IT skills for installation and maintenance. Also, businesses can forgo on-site VPNs altogether and subscribe to VPN services offered by third parties.

Miglani offers advice for what a small business should look for when deploying a VPN:

1.      Ease of use. There are many vendors that offer easy-to-use plug-n-play appliances that don’t require sophisticated IT skills to install and maintain them.

2.      Security. Install a firewall to increase the security. Most VPNs do come with firewalls.

3.      Monitoring. Make sure that your VPN service provider offers 24x7 monitoring and management.

4.      Customer support. Make sure that the service provider offers 24x7 customer support. You are using VPNs because you want round-the-clock access to your company data. If something goes wrong, you shouldn’t have to wait for the problem to be resolved.

5.      Capacity. Make sure that the solution will support the number of users your business has and will also support the required bandwidth to support all those users.

VPNs used to be the purview of large enterprises, mostly due to their high price tags. Now, they can be acquired for a fraction of that -- plug and play appliances start at a few hundred dollars, Miglani says.

In addition, telecom companies offer VPN services as a subscription. “Subscribing to VPN services allows small businesses to minimize their upfront costs and also eliminates the need for any internal IT staff to manage the VPNs,” Miglani says.