Co-op's System Lets Employees Work at Home

SEATTLE A growing number of corporate executives, technical staff and store directors working for eight-store PCC (Puget Consumers Co-op) Natural Markets here are now able to work from home thanks to SSL VPN technology the retailer has employed. If people can't make it to the office, or have additional work in the evening or are on the road, they just open their browser to the device's website and

SEATTLE — A growing number of corporate executives, technical staff and store directors working for eight-store PCC (Puget Consumers Co-op) Natural Markets here are now able to work from home thanks to SSL VPN technology the retailer has employed.

“If people can't make it to the office, or have additional work in the evening or are on the road, they just open their browser to the device's website and they can access email, the intranet, file services and applications like timesheets,” said Mary Beutjer, systems administrator for PCC, the nation's largest consumer-owned natural food cooperative. “It's pretty much like being in the office.”

SSL VPN — secure sockets layer virtual private network — is an increasingly popular Internet tool for organizations with employees who need secure access to a corporate network from any location. “It's [as secure as] Web banking,” Beutjer said. “It's encrypted along the same lines.” The growing publicity about the technology is stirring competition and lowering prices, she added. Beutjer declined to comment on what PCC paid for the system.

PCC's year-old system, consisting of hardware and software from Aventail, Seattle, also supports employees who are injured or on disability — or just kept home by adverse weather. “It's an attractive benefit to offer people and could make a difference in recruitment,” Beutjer said.

This past winter, inclement weather in Seattle kept many PCC employees home from work during a one-week period, including one day when only one-third of corporate personnel made it into the office, according to Aventail. But home-bound employees were able to work via the system.

The SSL VPN is now used by about 50 people at PCC “and growing,” she said. It is also leveraged by outside consultants and vendors, including one vendor who remotely monitors the advanced refrigeration system used by PCC's newest store in Redmond, Wash.

Prior to the SSL VPN, PCC employed an Internet protocol security (IPsec) system that also allowed remote access to corporate data but was not as user-friendly as the SSL VPN. “IPsec required the user to install software and configure the system, which was too unwieldy for the average user to deal with,” Beutjer said. “I had to spend so much time supporting it.”

According to a survey by Aventail, secure remote access usage will continue to increase rapidly over the next 12 months, driven by increased usage of mobile devices and wireless local area networks (LANs) and more disaster-recovery planning.