Working from home–welcome to remote access

As offices empty out from pandemic concerns, a whole new group of people are trying to work from home–and discovering the wonders of “remote access.” As veterans of the “tele-computing” wars since the earliest modems, we thought we’d give you a quick overview of some options.

For those who vaguely remember connecting to work years ago, you were most likely connecting directly from one modem to another, using products like Carbon Copy, pcAnyWhere, VNC, etc.

And then came the internet. Now accessing a work computer means knowing what internet address to reach, then navigating through levels within the building to reach a specific computer. The good news: modern products make it (fairly) painless. The bad news: theoretically, anyone else in the world can do the same thing, so security is a big consideration.

How remote access works: two halves of the same program are required. One is installed on the work computer (the “host”); that machine is left powered-on with the software listening for a connection. The other half is installed on the home computer. By dialing the right ID or address and providing a password a connection is established. Once connected, you can do almost anything from the remote that you would do in the office: run programs only installed at the office, transfer files home, see things on the work network, etc.

Powerful stuff. That’s why so many I.T. service companies now never enter your building–there’s no need if they can take over your computer remotely. On the down side, you have to leave the host PC on all the time (generally speaking), so both internet and power have to be working.

Windows has had some built-in attempts at this for quite awhile–including “Remote Assistance“–but these have been problematic to implement and lacking in features.

The market for remote access software seems to be consolidating a bit lately, but major commercial products in this space include TeamViewer, Remote PC, and GoToMyPC/LogMeIn.

We have used TeamViewer for some years now with good results. It installs quickly and configures itself to get through firewalls and other technical hurdles. It is free for limited personal use, but they display pop-up “ad” windows after use. They are now more actively trying to detect commercial use, so you may get locked out if you forget and connect to too many hosts. Unfortunately, the subscription price for this and similar software is out of the question for all but large corporate clients.

Truly free software is limited. There are several variants of the open source VNC, but these are more challenging to set up and a bit fussy.

An interesting under-publicized option is Google’s Remote Desktop, an add-on to their Chrome browser program. This is not as fully-featured as the commercial products, and may be problematic for unattended access over many days.

Whatever method you use for remote access, be mindful that with this power comes responsibility. We have not experienced any security issues, but they are possible. Don’t set up a host and then forget about it; turn it off–and reboot the PC–periodically, at the very least.

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