Cisco Systems plans to make remote working as simple as plugging a router into a broadband connection and starting up a PC, with the launch of its Cisco Virtual Office (CVO).

CVO combines a variety of existing products with management software that hides the complexity of a VPN (virtual private network) and other technologies. Remote employees with no technology training can use CVO to make their home setups work just like a regular office, Cisco said.

Fuel price hikes and concern over carbon emissions recently have focused more attention on telecommuting and permanently home-based employees. Cisco, a company with much to gain from large and medium-sized enterprises extending connectivity to remote sites, has been a big proponent of workforces keeping in touch electronically, in both its product offerings and its own infrastructure. CVO began as an internal project in Cisco's IT department, said Bob Berlin, a director of product management at Cisco.

The CVO setup for home and remote offices is built around the Cisco 881w Series Integrated Services Router (ISR). After an employer or a Cisco partner sends the router to a remote site, the worker can connect it to the local broadband connection and start using it. The router can call in to the main office, retrieve the proper configuration, and set itself up. As soon as the remote employee plugs in a laptop, the online experience is just like working at the office, with no special browsers or authentication tools, Berlin said.

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is also part of CVO, so employees can plug in a Cisco 7970G IP phone and immediately start using it as if they were in the office. If the worker has both a main office and a home office phone, both will use the same number. Outgoing calls will look like they are coming from the office number, and all incoming calls will ring on both phones unless one of the ringers is turned off, Berlin said.

The full-featured 7970G has been tested and certified for CVO, and other wired and wireless IP phones will follow, but theoretically any IP phone that uses SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) should work with the system, Berlin said. Cisco plans eventually to make its TelePresence high-definition videoconferencing technology an endpoint for CVO.

The 881w Series router can be used with Wi-Fi within the home and shared with other household members with two separate virtual networks. If the local broadband connection goes down or the router is disconnected, it can reconfigure itself again in the same way as soon as the connection is restored, he said.

At the main office, a Cisco 7200 Series router runs the VPN. CVO uses Cisco Dynamic Multipoint Virtual Private Networking, which allows for data to be exchanged securely between two remote offices without going through the central site, according to Cisco. Security can be assured via SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and L2TP (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol) over IPsec (IP Security) VPNs.

With the Cisco Configuration Engine, Cisco Security Manager and Cisco Secure Access Control Server, administrators can set up system images and policies and distribute them to as many as 10,000 remote ISRs. As part of CVO, Cisco and its partners will offer planning, design and implementation services to IT administrators.

The system is available immediately, with prices starting at $700 (£397) per seat.