Tools Of The Trade: 3Com's OfficeConnect VPN Firewall box for securing computer networks

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The Independent Online

Half of British IT directors ranked security ahead of cost cutting as a major issue in a survey earlier this year. With the growth in virus and hacking attacks, it is easy to see why.

Implementing good security for a computer network can be expensive and complicated. So networking manufacturers are responding with equipment that should plug into an internet connection and provide good security in hours, not days.

Manufacturer 3Com has designed its OfficeConnect VPN Firewall box for smaller networks, although it can support up to 253 users. The box screens traffic for attacks from outside, as well as supporting virtual private network (VPN) connections for remote users.

At its most basic level, setting up the VPN Firewall means plugging in one wire to the office network, another to a broadband router or modem, and following the box's set-up wizard. As long as the person installing it has their network's internet settings to hand, the process is quick and painless.

But the VPN Firewall comes with a host of other functions, making it more flexible but also more complex. One potentially useful option is content filtering: companies can opt to block access to unsuitable websites, and to restrict access to the net from some computers. This is a good way to protect machines in public areas such as reception.

The VPN function lets companies set up secure connections for staff out of the office, so they can download files and use the email system as if they were in the building.

Running a virtual private network through a standalone box takes pressure off a company's servers, so the relatively small investment needed for a unit such as the VPN Firewall should pay for itself quickly. Making the most of these features, though, entails a reasonable knowledge of networking. And services such as content filtering require a subscription. In use, though, the box did its job, blocking attempts to connect to a test network from beyond the firewall. In some ways, the unit is too efficient, as it also thwarted legitimate attempts to pick up email from a server, even though the firewall was configured according to the server's instructions.

Again, this is an area where a small company might quickly find it needs the services of a networking engineer. And the cost of this could well exceed that of buying the VPN Firewall in the first place.

However, it is a worthwhile investment. Companies that suffer severe security breaches often do not live to tell the tale.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros: plenty of features, easy to set up for simple networks, low cost.

Cons: documentation for advanced features could be better; content filtering requires subscription.

Price: £197.98 (