Remote Access Methods

Mobility today is huge. People want to access their office computers from home, vacation, or pretty much anywhere they might be. We are becoming a more mobile-ready society and even a mobile-first society in many ways.

It's just assumed any more that you can be reached and able to do your job wherever and whenever you happen to be.

There's lots of ways to remotely access your office computer and network. The solution you choose must be tailored to your specific needs. There's not a single "remote access" solution that you can just buy and install.

In this article, we'll discuss the major divisions in the remote access landscape and discuss the pros and cons of these various methods. And with these pros and cons in mind, we'll discuss which remote access method would be indicated for a particular use case.

METHOD 1:   Classic Remote Control - the KVM model

Remote control tools like TeamViewer (my fav), LogMeIn, GotoMyPC, etc. work by doing KVM capture and redirect. Whuuut? KVM stands for Keyboard Video Mouse. Your keyboard and mouse interactions are transmitted securely to the far end (host) and, likewise, the contents of the display on the far end is transmitted back to you on the near end (remote). If the internet service on both ends is decent, it can almost be like sitting directly in front of the far end computer.

I use this technology when helping my clients remotely. If a picture is worth a thousands words the live action is worth a hundred thousand words. I can investigate and fix problems far faster when I can remote into a distant computer. Of course, the computer must be working well enough to access the internet, but often that is the case.

Pros

  • You can access all your specialized office software without needing the same software installed on the remote end.

  • Since raw data files never traverse the link, there is no internet-introduced latency (delay) when accessing a database or other huge files. Only the screen contents are transferred.

  • Confidential data never leaves the host end. Even though you are seeing and interacting with data residing on the host end, the raw data never leave the host end. Only the displayed screens travel the link to the remote end. Those screens are ephemeral and never saved on the remote end.

  • You can access your office systems from a normally incompatible device. e.g. Access software on your Windows computer using an iPad. Something that would normally be impossible.


Cons

  • You must be connected to interact with host end data. There is no such thing as working offline.

  • Takes over the host end computer while you are accessing it so no one can use the host computer while you are remoted in. Make sense. After all, this remote access method simulates you sitting right in front of the host computer. Normally this isn't a problem as you'd be accessing your regularly assigned computer.

METHOD 2:   Extending the Network Through a VPN

VPN means Virtual Private Network. It's a remote access system that allows your near end (remote) computer to actually join the host computer's LAN (Local Area Network). The office LAN is extended to the remote end via a "secure tunnel". Using this method, your work actually takes place on the remote end, not on a host end computer. e.g. If you are editing a Word document, that editing takes place on remote end.

VPN solutions are indicated mainly for connecting the LANs in distant offices together into a single network. e.g. A company with two or three area offices might connect them together via VPN in order to share a common database, real time applications, or a shared network folder (although there are other ways to share a folder).

A VPN solution is suboptimum for single participant access to a remote network. Especially given the rise of newer and excellent solutions for method 1 and method 3 described herein. The reasons are fairly technical and beyond the scope of this article to explain.

Pros

  • Doesn't tie up a computer on the host end. But again this is rarely an issue.

  • Superior UI experience for display intensive work, such as photo or video editing, because the edits takes place on the remote end. Intense screen activity isn't delayed by being redirected across the internet link.


Cons

  • Raw data files actually traverse the link between the host and remote ends. Large files can take along time to open and interaction can be sluggish.

  • Whatever office software you want to use must be installed on the remote end as well.

  • Confidential data will reside on the remote end.

  • Some VPN solutions of this nature require a static IP address which usually costs extra per month, perhaps $20 to $30.

METHOD 3:   File-Only Access via DropBox or Other Cloud-Based File Sharing Platform

Often times, business people really only need access to company files that may be on a server or their workstation. And they'll want this access anywhere without necessarily being connected to the office network or even the internet. When clients discuss needing remote access or mobile functionality, this is often the method they (unknowingly) need even if it's not articulated as such.

Pros

  • Files are maintained on both the host end (or server) and remote end. They are synchronized automatically between the two ends.

  • Offline work is possible. Edit a Word file while on an airplane and it'll sync automatically next time you're online.

  • Synchronization between portable devices is possible. e.g. Edit Word files on your iPad that synced from your office workstation.


Cons

  • ​Confidential data will reside on the remote end and on the file synchronization servers. However, it is possible to add layers of security to the cloud servers making them more secure than they otherwise might be.

  • Whatever office software you want to use must be installed on the remote end as well.

  • Only works with software that interacts with individual files, such as Word documents, spreadsheet, photo editing, etc. Cannot be used for accessing a remote database or a real time shared resource.

So, which method to choose?

This is where a discussion of your needs is necessary. The brief outline above may give you some idea of the methods available but without a discussion and analysis of your needs, it's not possible to conclusively recommend a particular method.

Having said that, most of my clients get along with method 3 using Dropbox. A fair number also use method 1 using TeamViewer or LogMeIn. Rarely do I implement method 2.

Sometimes, no one single method is best for everything that a client needs to do. I may recommend multiple methods, using whatever method that most efficiently addresses a particular need. In this case, I usually recommend method 1 for database or real time application sharing and method 3 for standalone file access such as Word, Excel, PDF, photos, etc.

Options today are more plentiful, diverse, and capable than ever before. There's never been a better time to investigate and possibly implement a mobile-capable ecosystem for yourself and/or your company. But it must be done right.