Building Better Communication
Posted: 10.04 - By Teresa von Fuchs

Imagine an assembly line miles long, where every few feet a new part is added to your product. In order for it to be added correctly, however, directions from the previous station must be sent to each following one, and so on, and so on, in a timely fashion. Now imagine this is your business model, where you do everything from the ground up, literally.

The California-based Lewis Group, one of the nation’s largest privately held real estate development groups, buys land; plans and develops communities; constructs buildings; leases commercial and real estate property; and then manages those properties. In this great chain of being, communication at each level, every step of the way, is essential for productivity and profitability.

But these are different times for enterprises needing remote access to e-mail and critical corporate apps; the field has become an increasingly dangerous place for data. With worms, viruses and hackers lurking, how your data interacts with the world affects field productivity and the security of your home network.

“When planning to allow remote access to e-mail and network resources it was critical that whatever solution we selected was extremely secure,” says Dan Harman, head of the remote access implementation at Lewis. “Our CEO let us know that if we couldn’t be sure that our data would remain secure then he would prefer no remote access.”

After looking at several SSL VPN solutions, Lewis chose Whale Communications. “Whale worked for us because it interfaces well with Domino, which is what we use for e-mail, and it also has great interfaces with RSA security tokens,” explains Harman, “We also liked that it provides us with the ability to granularly control access to the application.”

Michael Minna, director of construction at Lewis, definitely feels the need for constant communication. With up to 10 projects under way simultaneously, and 50 to 100 third-party managers to contact regarding each project, communicating needs to be efficient. “I’m dealing with a guy right now who’s a very skilled superintendent. He’s very good at what he does,” says Minna, “but there’s a breakdown because I can’t e-mail him stuff. I have to send it to his office and his office turns around and faxes it to his house. They’re just not set up on the jobsite the way I’d like.”

Whale’s e-Gap SSL VPN is built on an open, flexible architecture that seamlessly integrates with standard and proprietary infrastructures, including authentication servers, user directories, load balancers, authorization methods and application and network infrastructures. Lewis uses Whale to access Citrix for remote access to corporate apps and remote e-mail.

According to Harman, about 75 percent of the Whale remote access use is for e-mail, but access to more applications was recently added. Access to attachments is also critical. “We all have BlackBerries, but I would say that the one inconvenience about a BlackBerry is it’s very difficult to open attachments,” says Minna, “and it’s common to need to open attachments such as spreadsheets, drawings or digital images securely from the field. They don’t open well on a BlackBerry, “but they do when we log in [through Whale] on a laptop.”

Whale’s SSL VPN also boasts ease of use and a customizable user interface, so that users like Mike Minna may not even know they’re using it. In fact, when I asked him about it, he wasn’t sure he was using a security application, he just explained that he launches the Citrix icon from his laptop, signs in and off he goes checking e-mail and downloading data.

While security was a necessity for Lewis’ remote access, Harman also realizes it’s not for every employee to worry about. “It’s very important to us that the system be intuitive for our users. When Lewis selected e-Gap, it was because Whale’s technology offered the combination of security and ease of use for the end users,” says Harman. “It’s for the IS team to make the system as secure as possible while still being flexible and user friendly.”

Phase Two

Lewis is now building a completely separate arm on the Whale solution for residents in its apartment communities. For liability reasons, each apartment community needed to keep signatures on file from each tenant, for each repair request. A resident who needed something fixed previously had to go to the management office (only open during business hours) and fill out a form requesting service. The management then entered the information into a database and sent a trouble ticket to the repairs office, which kept the hardcopy forms on file and often had to contact third-party contractors. But with the Whale e-Gap SSL VPN, residents will soon just go to the Whale secure sign-on page, check a few boxes, describe the issue and either allow access to their apartment or schedule an appointment.

“If somebody has a broken light switch, she can file a repair request that will be routed straight to the person doing repairs for that community,” explains Harman. The repair person receives the trouble ticket automatically by e-mail. There’s no need for hardcopy forms because the secure sign-in works like a signature. “We’ll end up having two entirely different Web sites for two different groups of people running through one appliance,” explains Harman.

Though they’ve completed testing to prove the Whale solution can handle the volume, eConcierge, the product that provides the management service, isn’t ready for full deployment. Harman expects roll-out to all 25 apartment communities—about 9,000 units total—to be complete in three to six months.

Deployment of the Whale e-Gap SSL VPN took about two days, according to Harman, and senior management at Lewis is delighted. Says Harman, “They don’t know how they dealt with life before Whale.”•


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