Remote Access Buyer's Guide

Inevitably, just when you're miles from the office, someone needs a piece of information that only you can provide, and it is locked away on your office PC. With a remote access solution, you can easily access your PC and get the data you need, all while sipping a drink with your toes in the sand.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Sound too good to be true? Well, it isn't. A number of different solutions are available to help make this a reality. In this Remote Access Buyer's Guide, I will cover the different types of remote access solutions, their advantages and disadvantages, their ease of use and technical requirements, and also what you can expect as far as usability.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat--accessing your computer from outside the physical building is not something only Fortune 500 companies are capable of doing. There are many options available, from free and low cost to moderately expensive, that will allow you to access your PC from a remote location. All of them provide you with a way to connect to your desktop computer and have access to your files and data. No more copying files to a USB drive to work on them at home. No more feeling cut off from the office while on vacation. Secure remote access is something that the employees of every business, big or small, should be doing to be more productive.

[ The best free remote access tools for Windows and Mac combine firewall friendliness with easy remote access and an amazing array of handy features. For some of those mentioned here, see InfoWorld's review. ]

All of the techniques described here require a little networking knowledge, mostly for making changes to your router or firewall. Each remote access method requires a TCP port to be opened in your router and directed at your desktop PC or server in order to allow the remote control program to function. Adding a port-forwarding rule to your router or firewall is easy, and a number of online how-to's can help you accomplish your remote access dreams. While an incorrect port-forwarding rule might not mess up the router, it can cause remote access to fail and produce more than a little frustration. If you aren't comfortable making changes to your router, a quick call to a local IT professional is the best course of action.

Free and Low-Cost Remote Access Utilities

The adage, "you get what you pay for" doesn't necessarily hold true when it comes to free or low-cost remote access solutions. Quite a few utilities provide better than adequate performance and capabilities at little or no cost. Microsoft has offered its Remote Desktop Connection tool for years, and a number of other utilities, most notably programs based on VNC (Virtual Network Computing), are available for download and installation on your office PC.

For Remote Desktop Connection, the remote component is built into versions of Windows from XP through Windows 7, and users of Windows versions as far back as 95 can download the client directly from Microsoft to add that functionality to older systems. Unfortunately, only the professional versions of Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 can be remotely controlled; the service isn't available for any other versions.

VNC-based utilities, such as UltraVNC and TightVNC, include both server and client components and can be installed on a wide range of Windows operating systems. And for users of Mac OS 10.5, VNC is built into the operating system.

As mentioned earlier, setup for these types of remote access tools requires changes to your firewall and router to forward specific TCP/IP ports to the computer you want to take over. This means that this type of remote access solution doesn't scale very well beyond a single user. It is possible to use alternate ports to control other computers, but it can quickly become an administrative nightmare.

Security isn't much of an issue with these utilities as long as good password policies are in place, but any time you open up ports in the firewall, you are exposing a device to the Internet. Make sure that, besides having strong passwords in place, each PC set up for remote access has an up-to-date antivirus program installed on it, too.

Commercial Remote Access Tools

In the same category as Remote Desktop and VNC are commercial remote access programs. These tools also have a server/host component and a remote/client program that communicate and provide access to the office PC. Symantec's pcAnywhere is one of the oldest and most popular of the commercial remote access packages. It goes beyond simple remote access and provides additional features such as multimonitor support, better logging to meet compliance requirements, and the ability to connect to multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Another program that has been around for years is Laplink Gold. It provides many of the same features as pcAnywhere and can even connect two PCs via USB cable for file synchronization and transfer.

Commercial packages do have two downsides -- cost and the firewall issues listed above. The cost of a package is a mild trade-off for its additional features and the ability to call technical support should the need arise. And because of the nature of the solution, you still have to open up specific ports on your firewall to allow a connection. These programs also don't scale well because of the port-forwarding issue at the firewall.

You will find, though, that these programs are easy to use. Each one has technology built into it to help improve screen transfers and reduce latency (latency is the delay sometimes noticed when working over the Internet). This makes the remote control experience seem more like you really are sitting at the computer and helps to reduce the irritation that comes when you have to wait for the other system to catch up.

Cloud-Based Remote Access Services

A segment of remote access that is growing in popularity is the hosted remote access solution. A hosted solution is an online service that acts as a gateway between you and your office computer. It requires a small program to be installed on both the host and remote computers. The program on the office PC establishes a connection to the Web-based service, through the firewall. When you want to connect to your PC, you log in to the Web service and pick your PC out of the list presented; the Website brokers the connection.

Popular services that fall into this category are GoToMyPc, LogMeIn Pro, and TeamViewer. Each one of these programs has both a Windows and a Mac version, and all but TeamViewer allow connections from a Web browser.

One great advantage to this type of remote access is it doesn't require changes to your firewall--no open ports forwarded in to your computers. This also means that they scale well and don't have the inherent administrative overhead that VNC, Remote Desktop, and pcAnywhere have. Even though they do use a small program to "call out" to the hosting Website, the installed portion usually has a very small footprint and doesn't consume resources when idle.

The biggest downside to hosted remote access solutions is that most of them are fee-based services. For noncommercial users, TeamViewer and LogMeIn each have free accounts, but for commercial use, such as in a small business, you can expect to pay a small monthly or yearly fee. For many, such fees are a small price to pay (no pun intended) for the advantage of not having to worry about firewall rules and management.

Subscribe to the Business Brief Newsletter

Comments