Secure office links from anywhere

TCS devices give remote network, phone connections a boost

Most of us think of the enterprise in terms of sterile, air-conditioned, cubicle-ridden office space, yet much of the business world isn’t like that at all. Workers in industries such as construction, consulting, and the media frequently find themselves outside the reach of traditional phone lines, without high-speed Internet or cell service.

But the need to communicate doesn’t diminish as you range farther from a home office, and neither does the requirement for secure communications to protect critical business data or private personal information. TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) originally developed its SwiftLink series of secure communications products for use by the U.S. government, but with the explosion of the Internet, VoIP, and new demands for protecting business information, these products are filtering into the private sector.

I looked at three of TCS’s devices, taking them out into the wilds of central Florida with two TCS engineers to test the products’ usefulness and performance. I was especially interested in communications reliability -- how well the connection stays up -- as well as the security of the connections and the devices’ ease-of-use.

The devices I tested fill a wide range of remote communications needs. The SwiftLink 2300 is designed to be an office on the go: It includes everything you’re likely to need to connect your computer and VoIP phone to any of a variety of communications media -- and to make sure the connection is encrypted. The SwiftLink 5110 eliminates cell service outages by putting an entire cell site into a briefcase. The SwiftLink DVM-90 -- also known as Mongoose -- ensures high-speed Internet access by providing a satellite terminal that fits into two backpacks.

These three devices can be used together or separately to address various communications needs, from boosting a remote office’s Web access to creating a completely portable field office.

SwiftLink 2300

TCS bills the SwiftLink 2300 as an office on the move, and it’s not far off. This is a highly portable communications and productivity center that can provide Internet and voice communications anywhere in the world. It’s designed to be carried in a backpack and can be set up and operational in 10 minutes, along with a satellite or other communications device.

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Because we were testing both government-level and commercial encryption, we used an Inmarsat M4 Nera World Communicator in this test to provide satellite data and voice connectivity. If you’re only using commercial encryption, the Inmarsat device is not required -- you can use the SwiftLink DVM-90 Mongoose or another means of communications instead. One nice touch with Inmarsat’s product: The satellite terminal folds up to the size of a laptop computer and will fit into the backpack with the SwiftLink 2300.

The 42-pound 2300 has a four-port Ethernet switch, WAN interfaces for ISDN and the M4, and ports for VoIP connections. It also includes a Panasonic CF-18 Toughbook rugged laptop that installs neatly into a slot next to the Ethernet ports.

The SwiftLink 2300 encrypts data and voice traffic using 3DES commercial encryption. And if your enterprise does highly classified government work that requires higher security, you can add -- for approximately $6,300 more --government-level encryption, meeting NSA Type 1 requirements. If you’re connecting to the outside world using the 10/100 Ethernet switch, you can only use commercial encryption because the government encryption devices require a specific communications protocol that won’t currently work with Ethernet.

The TCS engineers and I headed out to a truly remote area to test the SwiftLink 2300. Setup required a spot where the satellite antenna could see the southern sky; it was quickly completed, and we placed the 2300 in the back of a Hyundai SUV to use the vehicle’s 12-volt DC supply.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the Hyundai’s convenience port didn’t work, so we got a chance to test the 2300’s internal battery power. TCS says the batteries are good for about 20 minutes, but in our test they lasted closer to a half hour.

I learned several things out there in the weeds. One is that the 10-minute setup time is a little conservative; I was looking at Web pages in slightly under 10 minutes. Second, as expected from the use of a geosynchronous satellite, latency is an issue and is especially noticeable during voice communications. And third, you will get some strange looks from people who happen by -- the device does look like something found in a sci-fi film -- so it’s probably good that the unit lives in a nondescript black backpack when not in use.

When I returned to a more civilized setting, I confirmed that the 2300 works just as nicely over Ethernet connections, including commercial connections similar to what you might find in a hotel room.

The 2300 contains a pair of console ports to connect to the unit with a laptop and manage its internal components, including the Ethernet switch and the internal router. Unfortunately, you must manage these components separately. A more integrated management approach would be better, saving time and reducing the chance of management errors. However, the four Ethernet ports allow you to connect more users or other Ethernet devices, so you do get a little more scalability to balance out the slightly more involved management.

Overall, the SwiftLink 2300 performed very well. I was impressed by the portability, ease-of-deployment, and quality of communications -- satellite latency notwithstanding. Because the device is designed to be used by people with little or no telecom training, normal ease-of-use is quite good.

SwiftLink 5110 Portable Cell Site

Don’t you just hate it when you’re on the road and end up working in a spot with no cell service? That won’t be a problem with the SwiftLink 5110, a portable GSM cell site.

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The 5110 looks like a Roomba robotic floor cleaner packed in a briefcase. Inside the case is the cell-site radio gear (the Roomba look-alike) with a Linux server resting beneath it. Open the case, turn it on, and the 5110 becomes a free-standing cell site. It can work with an existing cell system, but it can also work without one. You could set up the system on a sailboat in the middle of the Sargasso Sea and have cell service if you wanted to, thanks to the portability of the all-in-one-case design.

The 5110 includes ISDN and T1/E1 interfaces, plus an Ethernet port for connecting to the outside world. It can also connect to existing GSM networks and to other TCS 5100-series portable cell sites to create a cellular network for area coverage. Each 5110 device will support seven simultaneous callers.

The GSM support means the 5110 should work with any GSM phone; if your company uses CDMA phones, the 5110 will not work with them, but it will allow calls out to any type of phone, anywhere, if you connect the 5110 to the PSTN.

Setting up the 5110 in the mosquito-laden wetlands took about 10 minutes, most of which was spent waiting for the internal Linux server to get up and running.

The TCS engineers and I then tried the cell site with a standard Sony Ericsson T610 GSM phone. Calls were clear and easy to complete, although as expected, specific cellular company services -- such as customer service -- did not work because we were connecting through the 5110 and not a cellular service provider. We were, however, able to call between cell phones and to the outside world. The caller ID features worked just fine, and we made outgoing and incoming calls easily.

When we paired the 5110 with the SwiftLink DVM-90 Mongoose VSAT (very small aperture terminal), cell phone calls were routed through a VSAT satellite connection. This allows you to connect to the 5110 through a secure satellite link for a security boost. The 5110 will also work with existing secure cell phones.

The device has two security modes: one that allows anyone to connect to the cell site, and one that allows you to define specific cell phones that can make connections. You can even assign those phones specific extension numbers that can be used by other users connected to the cell site, so you don’t have to open up the cell site to just anyone with a phone if you don’t want to.

Managing the security modes is straightforward, requiring you to enter the required information as a list on an embedded Web page. After the cell site has identified your phone, you need only to assign the extension number and user name and then give it permission to use the cell site.

With its quick connections and security settings, the SwiftLink 5110 makes sense for business users, ranging from work crews that must stay in touch even when miles from wireless service, to meeting planners who want to make sure their conference rooms have good cell coverage.

SwiftLink DVM-90

As you may guess from its nickname, Mongoose, the SwiftLink DVM-90 VSAT satellite device was originally developed for the U.S. military’s special operations forces, sometimes known to one another as “snake eaters.”

The DVM-90 Mongoose, however, has broad applications for nongovernment users, as well. And it will work just fine for employees in the field -- from consultants to construction crews -- that need reasonably fast, reasonably reliable communications.

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As with all satellite communications, there are caveats: The device must be outside to work, and it must have a clear view of the sky to connect to the satellite -- hence my “reasonably reliable” disclaimer above. But compared with other VSAT satellite options, the DVM-90 holds an advantage with its portability and automated setup and operation.

Back in the Florida countryside, the setup process was simple. We removed the DVM-90 unit from its backpacks and set it on the ground with one side facing south. Next, we attached power cables with either AC -- anything from 95 volts to 265 volts is just peachy -- or as much as 48 volts of DC (bring your Hummer) and the Ethernet cables.

With the press of a switch, the Mongoose “wakes up” and waits for you to install the dish -- a simple process using two clips per dish segment. Thanks to the straightforward design, you can’t install it incorrectly.

Using its installed GPS unit, the DVM-90 figures out where it is and then swings its dish around, searching out the satellite. It lets you know when it’s locked on, and you’re ready to work.

You connect to the Mongoose through an Ethernet port, which gives you the approximate equivalent of two T1 lines, or a little more than 2Mbps. That’s a very good rate, about as good as it gets with VSATs, and plenty fast enough to handle video or large downloads. You can use your own VSAT service with the Mongoose, or you can use TCS’s service, which costs about $3,500 per month -- less than most other VSAT usage charges I’ve seen.

The DVM-90 will work just fine with the SwiftLink 5110 cell site, giving you a relatively inexpensive satellite connection that will handle a lot of voice traffic, which we tested by making cross-country calls to InfoWorld’s office. It will also work with the 2300 and provides better bandwidth than an Inmarsat connection. Although you can’t use Type 1 encryption if you’re connecting this way (due to the restrictions on the NSA encryption module), commercial encryption works well.

Watching the Mongoose turn itself on and find its satellite is entertaining, but the best news is that it gives you a good broadband connection. Although there’s still the ever-present satellite latency issue, the connection is as clear for voice calls as any other VoIP connection. It’s also a rock-solid data connection.

Potent Portables

TCS’s trio of secure communications offerings can be a real boon to companies with employees who must be mobile or who find themselves without readily available communications, whether it’s simply because they work in out-of-the-way places or because of a disaster. Indeed, these types of devices could be valuable beyond measure during emergencies in which reliable communications are critical, as exemplified by the rescue, recovery, and organization efforts in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

If you combine the SwiftLink 2300 portable office, 5110 cell site, and DVM-90 Mongoose VSAT terminal, you get a phone and Internet communication system that is both secure and easy to use. Used separately, each device will fill gaps in your enterprise communications strategy. My few small quibbles center around the DVM-90’s two-backpack transportation requirement and the 2300’s less-than-integrated management, but your connections will be reliable and strong regardless of the device used. Best of all, the stuff is relatively portable, so if you absolutely need to transport it as carry-on luggage, you can.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security (30.0%)
Manageability (10.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
SwiftLink 2300 9.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.3
SwiftLink 5110 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.3
SwiftLink DVM-90 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.4
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