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Originating publication
July 01, 1996, Issue: 617
Section: Top Of The News
Emerging Technologies -- Bringing New Life To Telecommuting
Evan Schuman

Phoenix As the temperature hit 115 degrees here, Kristine Ricke was comfortably cool inside her air-conditioned condominium, sitting cross-legged on the floor with her IBM ThinkPad.

Comfortable, but still hard at work: Even though she was several miles from corporate headquarters, the senior network administrator for the $1.3 billion Del Webb Corp. was monitoring her company's LANs and, from the network status alerts flashing on her screen, knew not all was well with one them.

The cable modem dangling from the same cord that brings her CNN lets Ricke bring down her company's servers or change their configuration from home just as easily as she could at corporate headquarters.

The concept of telecommuting is not especially new and network administrators have often dealt with middle-of-the-night calls by connecting their laptop to the network with an analog modem. But several users at the 2,400-employee real estate giant, including Ricke, are finding that the increased bandwidth made possible by cable modems is melting the historically cold corporate views of work-at-home efforts.

Cable modems can operate at upwards of T3 speeds, though users are more likely to be limited by the speed of their connection, such as 10 Mbps for an Ethernet user. Indeed, Del Webb hadn't allowed any significant telecommuting before the cable modem trial.

Ross Skinner, IS manager of infrastructure at Del Webb, says the traditional advantages to telecommuting-namely lessening the need for office space, enhancing recruitment and lowering turnover-were not sufficient for Del Webb, which builds retirement communities in five states .

Skinner has been pushing for a paperless office and he sees cable modems as a key technology enabler to make that a reality. A major weakness of telecommuting before cable modems had been that it did not reduce the number of documents to be created and handled, he says. Cable modems, by contrast, can support the throughput necessary for true document imaging for documents relating to real estate transactions, corporate memos and the like.

Telecommuters equipped with cable modems "can work with the image, put their signature on the image, everything," Skinner said. "This is simply not efficient with a dial-up modem."

The cable modems will also let Del Webb transmit online images and full-motion video of various properties, including real-time walking tours of completed structures or in-progress construction.

Remote Applications

The throughput also allows applications to run remotely off the LAN, rather than installing them on every client machine, Skinner says, stressing the substantial system management advantages to having all major applications remain resident on centralized servers.

"You can actually run Windows across the network," he says. Ricke's three attempts to run it later resulted in her ThinkPad crashing each time. Ricke says she believes there might have been a problem with her Ethernet adapter.

Ricke is also excited about the technology's potential, but is quite satisfied for the moment enjoying the immediate benefits. "This saves the 2 a.m. trips to the office" when there's a network glitch, she says.

Del Webb has been participating in the cable modem trial with Cox Communications Inc. using LANCity modems since the second half of 1995.

Its five participants are from different parts of the company: market research; administrative facilities; help-desk management; network administration; and auditing. The company is preparing to add 10 more people to the project, including executives from the legal, marketing and human resources departments.

Links That Bind

A telecommuting employee's PC is connected via an Ethernet adapter to the cable modem in the home. Once connected to the hybrid fiber coaxial cable network, the employee communicates using the IP back to the corporate data center, where another cable modem passes data over an Ethernet link to a Cisco router acting as a firewall.

The router, in turn, attaches to the corporate token-ring backbone, which provides links to AS/400 servers via token-ring and to remote corporate sites (in Georgetown, Texas; Hilton Head, S.C.; Las Vegas; Palm Desert, Calif.; and Roseville, Calif.) via T1 lines. Skinner says he hopes to have much of the token-ring and T1 infrastructure replaced by ATM by the end of this month.

Although Del Webb considers the tests thus far to be successful, Skinner says he's not yet ready to bring the cable modems in to replace existing network infrastructure or to support the user's primary networking functions. "Telecommuting is not mission-critical," he says. "It'll take a while for my confidence to get up for mission-critical applications."

As soon as the cable connections can be made, Skinner says he wants to expand the trial from telecommuting to tying in remote sales offices and even trailers at construction sites. But that's some time away, long after the ATM upgrades are slated to be complete.

Maintaining communications links to those remote sites can be very difficult, Skinner explains, because they are often in rural areas, where an average building site is larger than 5,000 acres.

Beyond saving money for Del Webb, the cable modems might also increase revenues, Skinner says. He envisions houses built with cable modems already installed as a big attraction for Del Webb's target customers.

"We can sell these homes with Internet access. Everybody's interested in the Internet within the home," he chortles.

Copyright 1996 CMP Media Inc.


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