The Virtual Private Network (VPN) is Dying. Here's Why.

A lot has changed since I left college and entered the workforce.  My first “real” job began July 5, 1983 at the company formerly known as Northern Telecom.  My first desk telephone was an analog 2500 set.  I did most of my work on a green CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) screen logged into a PDP-11 via a 9600 baud modem.  There were no cell phones, e-readers, Google, or Microsoft Word.  Heck, in 1983 there was barely a Microsoft.

I don’t want to sound too much like an old geezer reminiscing on a park bench, but I can’t help but marvel at how different things are today.  However, as much as the technology has changed, so has the way I do my job.  My job used to be a place I went to.  If my car broke down, I didn’t work.   If the roads were too icy to drive on, I didn’t work.  If I had to stay home for a repair person, I didn’t work.  I suppose I could have sat down with a pad of paper and wrote PLM code (my first professional programming language) by hand, but that wasn’t very practical.

These days, work is something I do and not a place I go.  I work at home.  I work from airports and hotel rooms.  I’ve worked at my kid’s baseball games and swim meets.  Remember when we used to take sick days?  Now, I just prop myself up in bed and call it my office.  No matter where I am, I have immediate access to email, instant messages, video, and enterprise telephony.  The presence jellybean on my Microsoft Lync client might tell you that I am available, but it doesn’t let on that I am working in a coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis.

Of course, the only thing constant about change is change itself.  It’s true that I have moved from being an office worker to an everywhere worker, but aspects of that are quite different from what they were just a short time ago.

The biggest change for me has to do with three words – Virtual Private Network.  A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is technology that creates a tunnel between a remote device and a corporation’s network.  When I start the VPN on my PC, it’s as if I am sitting in the office connected to the Ethernet jack underneath my desk.   I see no difference in the way my applications run or act upon corporate data.

I clearly remember the days when I would go home, start my PC, fire up my VPN, and start working on the day’s unfinished tasks.  Now, I go home, tuck my PC bag under my desk, pull my iPhone out of my pocket, and get back to emails, IMs, and telephone calls without the use of a VPN.  Yes, there are still times when I need a PC for its screen and keyboard, but even then I rarely start up my VPN.

So, what changed?  How do I gain access to the tools I need without having to connect to the corporate network?

chess king fallen

The King is Dead

A VPN connection secures a device – all of the device.  It creates an encrypted data tunnel between my PC and the VPN concentrator at my company’s headquarters.  In essence, a VPN allows my PC to act as if it is hanging off a very long Ethernet cable.  The upside is that to my PC’s applications, office and home look alike.  The downside is that not only does Microsoft Office have full access to my corporate LAN, so does everything else on my PC.  Any virus or ill-behaved application that sneaks onto my PC has that same unfettered access.

Since this is my work-issued PC, the security threat is the same at home as it is in the office.  However, the same cannot be said about my iPhone.  It’s not a corporate device and my company has no control over what I put on it.  Or how about my personal PC?  I can create a VPN connection on it back to my office and subject my company to anything my kids might have downloaded.

So, what’s a teleworker to do?

The answer is really quite simple.  Instead of securing the device, let’s secure the application and the connection it has back to the corporate network.  In terms of SIP that comes down to three more words – Session Border Controller.   An SBC creates a secure network edge that only accepts and passes SIP signaling and RTP media.  I configure One-X Mobile on my iPhone to point to my company’s Avaya SBC for Enterprise and voila – remote enterprise telephony without having to start a VPN on the iPhone.  It doesn’t matter what else I might have on my mobile device.  The SBC makes sure that only the SIP traffic gets in and out.

This is very similar to how we secure web applications.  The next time you use Outlook Web Access (OWA), make note of the fact that your web browser is using secure HTTP (HTTPS).  Similar to the SIP messages to and from my iPhone, the browser’s stream of data has been secured and not the device the browser is running on.

The benefits of securing the application instead of the device are significant.  My IT department can provide me access to the company’s SIP communications system without having to worry about anything malicious sneaking into the corporate network.  I can load up my iPhone with as many games as I want and not a one of them will get past the SBC.

This holds true for other devices, as well.  An SBC can secure the SIP traffic from an Android phone, iPad, Surface RT, PC, Mac, or any other device that supports SIP communications.  This allows an enterprise to fully embrace Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) while safely managing security risks.

Will there still be uses for VPNs?  Yes, but like modems, VPNs are falling out of favor.  Enterprises are far more security savvy than they were a few short years ago.  Securing applications makes more sense than trying to secure an entire device.  This is especially true since many IT departments have lost control over what their users put on those devices.  They may not be able to control the device or the user, but with tools such as SBCs, they can control the data they allow in and out of their networks.

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This article originally appeared on Andrew Prokop’s unified communications blog, SIP Adventures, and is reprinted with permission.

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Why Healthcare Providers Need to Deliver Uber-Like Service

I have a confession to make: I’ve never used Uber. Personally, I like to order my taxis the old fashioned way – by calling the local service on my smartphone and paying via credit card. I know, so 2009.

But while seemingly all my friends are now Uber converts, I’ve yet to download the app, because I know it would be used once, or never, and then just sit on my phone. While there are now literally millions of apps available to us, not many of them actually get used. According to data from Nielsen, the average U.S. smartphone user accesses less than 30 apps per month, with 70 percent of total app usage coming from the top 200 apps.

So, which app would get my vote? A recent unfortunate event has made up my mind for me. The event was my son breaking his arm, and the dream app for me would be one that simplified my healthcare journey.

That dream healthcare smartphone app is yet to be created. After we rushed my son to the emergency room, we had to present his insurance card, answer questions about his previous medical history, any allergies to medication, list his emergency contacts and so on, all before he could be admitted to see a physician. By the time he did actually see a doctor, he was in so much pain his screams echoed through the hospital, and I was in tears.

Even worse, when we got to the operating room, the doctor went through the same list of questions. Fast forward another few hours and my son has now been transferred to a hospital room for two days of observation. With each doctor and nurse on duty, most of the questions asked before are asked again.

Now, if I had my dream app available, we would have clicked a single button to instantly talk to emergency responders, who could access my son’s up-to-date medical and healthcare profile. My phone could be geolocated and an ambulance dispatched, with skilled medical staff available who could relay information about my son’s condition to physicians while en route to the hospital. That information might prompt the hospital to make an emergency room available and prep the surgical team for an immediate operation–with the entire procedure being completed in a few hours, and questions restricted to immediate medical issues.

Admittedly, this is expecting a lot from one app: Uber doesn’t especially care about what happens to you once you reach your destination, after all. Is it too much to expect our healthcare providers to focus on providing a seamless experience for their users? The ordeal I suffered with my son recently was made worse because the hospital hadn’t done enough to ensure that I wasn’t frustrated as I progressed through the system, and to link its various points of contact… it lacked an omnichannel customer experience.

This seamless experience in healthcare is what each one of us should expect and healthcare providers should aspire to deliver. We take for granted that when we use Uber, we are going to get a reliable and safe journey that will get us to where we want to be. In the future, healthcare providers that don’t deliver the best possible experience to their customers are going to find themselves left behind by those providers who do.

The Digital Transformation Journey

An open, mobile platform environment and a cultural shift can help you deliver a seamless digital customer experience across every brand touchpoint.

Digital and mobile technologies have fundamentally changed how everyone does business. Whether it’s a Silicon Valley startup, a global manufacturing company or a local retail chain, thanks to the Internet and mobile devices, every company is becoming a technology company.

The expectations of customers have fundamentally changed. Customers today expect to engage with vendors and retail brands seamlessly across a variety of touchpoints, including social media, mobile applications, websites, traditional telephone, and face-to-face, on their terms. They expect that every touchpoint will be fully functional, whereby they can search for products, scan reviews, get support, provide feedback, and complete their purchase regardless of where they are in the buying process.

Few companies, however, have mastered the art of delivering this effortless and coherent customer experience across multiple channels. Indeed, a 2014 Economist Intelligence Unit survey shows that only about one-fifth of small-business leaders believe their company delivers a seamless omni-channel experience to their customers.

A 2015 report from Aberdeen shows that 96 percent of companies struggle to make effective use of customer data in their engagements. Digital transformation is complex, requiring massive change in underlying technology and business processes, along with a shift in corporate culture.

“A lot of people define the digital transformation as being about technology alone,” says Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research, a research and advisory firm focused on the transformative power of disruptive technology. “But what it is really about is the business model shift that allows you to change the way you engage with customers.”

Wang points to Uber as an excellent example. The peer-to-peer company changed the business model around ride services by integrating mobile apps, automated processes, and data analytics to more rapidly connect drivers with customers, track usage rates and align pricing with demand.

“They didn’t just add on a mobile tracker to schedule drivers more efficiently, they used a technology-enabled business model to disrupt the industry,” he says.

Of course, Uber had the benefit of starting fresh with no legacy systems, which gave them the opportunity to build an entirely cloud-based service leveraging customers’ mobile devices as their storefront. For companies with millions of dollars invested in legacy systems and those with rigid business processes, the transformation is a lot more complicated.

Open your minds

So, what do established companies using older technologies do to adapt? A good first step would be to deploy an open, mobile platform as a cloud service to help orchestrate existing on-premises systems and extend their services into a mobile paradigm.

One of the biggest challenges companies face in the digital transformation journey is that their data lives in multiple isolated systems that are not readily integrated. An open, mobile platform provides the freedom to develop orchestration across channels without worrying about integration issues, even if you are working with multiple vendors. As a result, data will become more easily accessible regardless of how it was collected and stored.

“The open-source model is the plumbing that enables the digital transformation,” says Jim Zemlin, director of the Linux Foundation, a nonprofit consortium supporting Linux developers and users. “It allows people to get the benefit of integrated capability faster and to connect all of your data sets underneath.” He encourages business leaders to look at modern computing architecture to determine how it can support the goal of transforming the business model and creating continuity across the user experience.

Another key component of that transformation is the integration of mobility into the customer experience. Mobile access has become the most important digital connection customers make with a brand as more of them do their brand assessment, shopping, purchase, and reviews via mobile devices.

According to a March 2014 Nielsen survey, more than 40 percent of consumers consider their mobile device to be the most important resource they have for making purchase decisions, with more than one-third of mobile shoppers turning to mobile exclusively.

That trend is only going to increase, according to Goldman Sachs, which estimates that m-commerce sales (sales made entirely via mobile devices) will hit $626 billion by 2018—roughly equivalent to all sales made via computer in 2013.

This should be a wake-up call for companies that have not yet invested the time or resources into building out their mobile customer experience. This includes apps that let customers engage with the brand, and mobile-enabled websites that make shopping a quick, easy, and branded experience. In addition, the customer experience becomes more contextual as companies can leverage information from the mobile device, such as securely identifying the customer and their location.

No more silos

In addition to investing in technology and open, mobile platforms, business leaders also need to address the cultural obstacles that stand in the way of digital transformation, says Alan Fuller, director of Full Works, a London-based cloud consultancy.

In most organizations, different departments “own” different customer touchpoints and the related data and are often unwilling to give up control.

“That is the fault of leadership,” Fuller says. Poor leaders enable guerilla IT–employees making rogue decisions about what technology to use and how to manage company data–and a corporate culture that supports secrecy and data ownership, rather than teamwork and shared goals. “You need enlightened leaders with a strategic vision if you are going to drive the culture change necessary to reinvent the way you do business.”

Fuller suggests building a road map for your digital transformation that includes where you are today, where you want to go and how aggressively you want to pursue getting there. Then identify which transitions are the highest priority to the business and what technology and process changes are necessary to make that happen. “Customer relationship management and social media monitoring are the obvious places to start,” he says, though he notes that every company is different.

Regardless of the projects you choose, be sure you understand the goals and who is responsible for implementing them, then set performance measures for success–e.g., improving customer engagement scores, lowering costs or increasing sales.

“You have to be able to measure the impact of the transformation to know whether it worked.”

Avaya Showcasing Latest Hospitality Technology Solutions at HITEC 2015

Positive guest experiences are the top criteria travelers use to select hotels, far outweighing price and location. Improving the guest experience is profitable, too: Customers who report having positive guest experiences spend 140 percent more than those who had poor experiences.

Hoteliers are increasingly embracing technology to differentiate the guest experience, and Avaya is at the forefront of developing the technology (and the network) to power positive guest experiences.

Next week, Avaya will showcase its hotel solutions at HITEC 2015, the largest hospitality technology tradeshow in the world. Join us at booth #752.

Let’s take a look at two ways Avaya can help improve the guest experience.

Communication-Enabling Apps and Websites

Nearly every hotel in the world today has a website. Most major hotel chains have either launched an official mobile app, or are actively developing one. These self-service websites and apps are designed to help guests book a room, and connect with the hotel before arriving.

Forward-thinking hoteliers are building interactive tools to help enhance their guests’ experience during their stay: indoor maps, spa and restaurant reservations, room service and suggested day trips through partners.

At HITEC 2015, we’re exhibiting the Avaya Engagement Development Platform, a software development kit that makes it easy to communication-enable websites and mobile apps. With just a few steps, developers can add “click to call” buttons inside any app, instantly connecting the guest with the front desk, concierge, onsite restaurant, and more.

Flexible engagement modules, called Snap-ins, are capable of enabling a range of communication-enabled experiences. For example, a hotel might use Snap-ins to build location-aware beacons that identify VIP guests and notify hotel staff to greet them personally.

Hotel app developers are exploring time- and location-aware notifications to, for example, encourage people to book restaurant reservations during slow times, or push relevant information about the property as the guest walks past.

Avaya built EDP to be platform-agnostic—it’s designed to communication-enable any app, working with disparate content management systems, programming languages and competing silos of information.

Flexible, Virtual Networking

A flexible, virtual network is critical to a successful hotel experience. Avaya SDN Fx is an IEEE standard Ethernet architecture based on Shortest-Path Bridging that makes it simpler for hotels to provision new services and reconfigure networks on the fly.

Consider the Dubai World Trade Center, one of the world’s largest convention centers. It would sometimes take days to reconfigure the network between major tradeshows. As exhibitors showed up, technicians would invariably spend the day manually provisioning services, making changes to the network and troubleshooting errors.

With Avaya SDN Fx, provisioning time at the Dubai World Trade Center is 50- to 60 percent faster, and technicians have been able to effectively eliminate manual provisioning.

Avaya SDN Fx allows hotels to run all of their applications on one network, securely, with built-in resiliency. There’s no need to have separate networks for all hotel services. If a networking switch goes down, Avaya SDN Fx automatically routes traffic to the remaining switches.

That means guests enjoy uninterrupted WiFi. Hotels lower their IT costs by managing a single network virtually. Hotels control the applications on their networks—for example, limiting video streaming on the lobby WiFi, so that it doesn’t affect network performance for other guests.

Avaya guest engagement and simplified networks solutions help hotels deliver differentiated guest experiences. Join us as we showcase both at HITEC 2015, booth #752, from June 16-18 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Listen to our latest healthcare solutions podcast: Innovating the Hospitality Marketplace.