It’s February 2010; a couple of days after what President Obama referred to as Snowmageddon. At least if your office is in this region, right now, you’ve probably been thinking about Remote Access to your computer systems. If you have it, you’ve been very glad of it. If you don’t, you may have been wishing you did. And you wouldn’t be alone: According to a CNNMoney article, LogMeIn’s remote access service usage surged nearly 40% during the recent storms.
Bad weather is but one of the reasons many businesses need some form of remote access, or even remote office solution. It can be a critical component of your overall Disaster Preparedness Plan. If your computers don’t shut down because of some environmental disaster, why does your business have to?
Remote access to your systems can also enable you and your staff to be a bit more time-flexible, or provide for remote technical support. (Yes, I use it all the time.) It can enable sales staff to access critical data while on the road, even from a SmartPhone.
Sounds great! What do we need to do? Well, slow down a moment. Like most things, you do need to put in a little bit of forethought and planning for this. So here are some things to think about:
- How many people are going to need to use it? Concurrently?
- Do we need application access, or just data access?
- How important is remote printing?
- Do we need remote access even during the workday, without affecting others’ work?
- How concerned are we about security?
These, and other factors can determine which is the most appropriate / cost-effective way of providing remote access services. These are some of the major categories used:
This type of solution has been around for a very long time. Typical examples of this type of solution include GoToMyPC and LogMeIn. A small client application is installed on the user’s PC(s), which connects out to the provider’s Internet servers. On the remote side, the user logs into the provider’s website, and makes a connection to the provider’s website. To make the actual remote-access connection, these two separate sessions are connected through the provider’s site. Both connections typically use strong encryption, making this type of remote access pretty secure.
As the name describes, this type of connection literally has the remote user taking over control of the host PC. This means that, typically, someone at the office could actually be watching whatever the remote user does, and the remote user will have no way of knowing it. If the user is accessing confidential data, this could be a concern.
Also, because the user is actually taking over the entire computer, the computer cannot be used by anyone else at the same time. If the access is needed during the regular business day, it has to be on a computer that no one else uses.
This type of solution has many of the same benefits as the Remote Control solutions. The user gets a virtual desktop and runs applications at the remote site. When using a Terminal Server, you can have multiple users on the same machine simultaneously, each with their own virtual desktop. Since users are not actually taking over the remote machine, passersby at the office cannot watch a session taking place. And since a Terminal Server is generally a dedicated machine, it doesn’t affect other users ability to work.
There are some things to be aware of, though. For example, remote printing can be tricky – especially if you’re trying to print to a printer on a remote network. Also, security can be a concern. The encryption used by RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) is not as strong as some other solutions – at least not by default. And, of course, there is the cost of the Terminal Server itself. A Terminal Server is a Server, requiring a Microsoft Server operating system, and typically, server hardware.
Virtual Private Networks (VPN)
VPN is a term I’ve often heard misused to mean all sorts of remote access services. So let me explain what it is: A VPN uses encryption to form a “tunnel” through an untrusted network (i.e. the Internet). So if you have two offices, you can use a VPN to connect them through the Internet, enabling machines to communicate securely between the two sites. You can also create a VPN from a computer to the network, allowing that computer to communicate as if it were directly connected to the network.
Typically, the encryption used is strong. But people often complain that performance is slower than they expected. The issues are usually due to applications that are not particularly well-suited for this type of connection.
The important thing is that you know your options, and understand both the costs and the benefits each can provide for your business.