Issue 205, March 24, 2000  

VPN Promises Fall Short, But Costs Mount

By Stephen M. Lawton

Did you ever have one of those millennia where nothing seemed to fall into place? Just when you thought you knew where you were headed, your paradigm shifted and you were left without a buzzword.
That's happened to a lot of companies. Virtual private networks (VPNs) that held so much promise just a few years ago before they were real have failed to live up to their potential.
      "It'll be so easy," the VPN vendors promised. "You'll be able to get your entire supply chain connected everyone will love it and you," they said. "It'll be worth the wait," they implored.
      A lot of companies bought into those pleas and spent huge amounts of money on VPNs. What they found out was that once they put their infrastructure in place, their troubles had just begun now they had to convince their customers to use their VPN.
      Suddenly, there was not just one, but several business partners going after the same customer asking that company to support different VPNs. Some of the big boys even told some of their small suppliers that if they wanted to keep the their business, they had to support that manufacturer's proprietary VPN.
      Ouch. If I run a small business, that means that either I invest a lot of money to invest in the Big Boy's VPN who might cut me off if they can get my goods cheaper elsewhere, or I simply walk away from business. Can you say: "Between a rock and a hard place?"
      Now that VPNs are indeed becoming real, are they producing the gains that the networking vendors promised? Apparently not, according to Martha Young, our resident networking analyst. In her Network Management column this month, she notes that the cost and complexity of VPNs can be prohibitive for the small to midsize business, and even large corporations could have challenges getting their trading partners to buy in to a system that will require considerable expenses and a daunting learning curve.
      Sure, if you're Proctor and Gamble you might convince some key trading partners to join your VPN, but what if your company earns less than $10 million in revenues annually? Do you really think you'll have the clout to make your customers and suppliers buy in to your VPN? What if your revenues are $100 million?
      The fact is, VPNs can be great for some applications, such as allowing your remote users to have full access to the corporate network or providing limited access to your largest and most strategic partners. For remote users, a VPN is more secure than linking them to your server over the Internet with just a simple password and login.
      If you're an aficionado of VPNs, take heart. You're not alone if you expected this to be a panacea. Perhaps one day you'll actually be able to use that VPN to realize your ambitious plans.
     But when you do, expect Web-based technology to fix the problems VPNs simply cannot resolve. While the benefits of VPNs today are debatable, a Web-based approach likely will be far more cost-effective with more upside potential.

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