Notes plug-in unburdens remote workers

One company's quest for mobile data synchronization ended with a Notes plug-in that literally lifted a weight off employees' shoulders.

Lamont Long, IT director at Crowe Chizek and Company LLC, had a problem with sharing.

The Indianapolis-based consulting, risk management and technology service provider has invested heavily in internally developed Lotus Notes applications. Teams that regularly travel off site to conduct audits and do other accounting work must dial into the company database so that managers and executives can oversee and review projects in the field.

Long said the log-in constraints created by the large number of dial-in connections forced teams to bring a custom-built "suitcase server" to off-site jobs. They called the workaround a "LAN-in-a-box" approach.

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The suitcase server, while effective, was cumbersome and quickly became a logistical burden. It was aging and inefficient when paired with newer notebooks used by clients or some team members.

"We were looking for peer-to-peer solutions," Long said.

About a year ago, Crowe Chizek implemented a Lotus Notes plug-in from Vancouver, British Columbia-based Colligo Networks Inc.

With Colligo's Workgroup Edition Lotus Notes plug-in, Long's teams are able to leave the custom portable server at home.

"Each [team] could go the client site and didn't need the server," he said. "They took a little Ethernet hub and cables, and two to eight guys could do what they were doing before. [It was] one less thing to lug, power up and trip over."

The plug-in allows off-site teams to access a Lotus Notes database without a physical Domino server. Each team member's laptop runs a copy of the Notes database from the headquarters office, ensuring that each member can instantaneously exchange information in the field. If a team member wants to connect remotely to the Domino server, the simulated database automatically updates any changes.

This process is called replication. When they return to the office, each team member can connect to the Domino server and have all changes replicated on it.

While skeptics may ask why the team members did not wait until they returned to synchronize with the server, Long said that the audit reviews and approvals need to be conducted as soon as possible.

"We don't even want them to wait until they get into a hotel that night," Long said.

Also, in an age of regulation, out-of-date or conflicting information residing on a team member's computer could pose a legal risk. By replicating a Notes database on a remote computer, discrepancies are eliminated immediately.

Ron Herardian, founder and CEO for Mountain View, Calif.-based consulting firm Global Systems Services Corp., said most organizations do not have any issues addressing this problem. Ordinary Notes replication is usually adequate because most companies have one or more remote access mechanisms for mobile workers -- anything from a modem on a pass-through Domino server to row address strobe, a VPN or Secure Socket Shell tunneling.

Herardian said the peer-to-peer environment created by the plug-in is "narrowly designed," leaving little chance for secure information to be compromised.

Overall, Long said Crowe Chizek has been pleased with the Colligo product's value and the ability to address the logistical problems with working with remote teams.

"[Colligo] was inexpensive compared to maintaining a server and server software, and it was fairly easy to support 600 people learning how to use it," Long said. "I haven't heard about [support problems] at all."

Colligo Workgroup Edition Lotus Notes plug-in costs $109.99 for a single-user license, and is available for Windows XP, ME, 2000 and 98 operating systems. Colligo said the plug-in is "optimized for short-ranged wireless connectivity," but Long said it functioned with Crowe Chizek's wired Ethernet setup.

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