The Case for VPNs: Part 2, Remote Access

Originally Published in the September Issue of the Wilmington Business Journal (http://www.wilmingtonbiz.net/)

A remote access VPN connections is sort of like a cell phone. At first, people said “why would I need one, I have a phone at home?” Once you are able to access your work computer from a remote location you will find yourself saying “how could I imaging living with out it.” Connecting to your office network remotely can be incredibly helpful when you travel or simply forget to send that email before you leave for the day.

Remote access VPNs works in a similar manner to the site to site VPNs described last month but allow staff using computers in any location to access resources in your internal network. Each remote user is authenticated and allowed access to the network over the VPN. Remote user’s machines act like they are inside your office, able to print, access intranet websites and file servers. All network traffic going between your computer and the office is protected and you do not have to worry about someone viewing your data. This is especially important in public Wifi networks, like coffee shops and airports. Also, since all data is routed through your firewall, you do not need to open up ports in your firewall or set up complicated port forwarding. You do have a firewall, don’t you?
There are lots of options when it comes to remote access VPNs, both hardware and software and there are some products that claim to be VPNs when they are not really.
Hardware solutions are available from most network appliance vendors. An open-source software solutions called OpenVPN (openvpn.net) is a free and truly amazing VPN solution, but is not for those without networking experience.
Software like Microsoft Remote Desktop (free for Windows XP Pro or Vista), GoToMy PC (commercial), and VNC (free/opensource) offer remote access but do not protect your connection or connect you directly to the remote network. They basically send images of your screen and key presses back and forth to your computer. Personally, Microsoft Remote Desktop is one of my favorite Microsoft products. It allows you to work on your office desktop over even the slowest connection, but was hard to connect to your remote office PC behind a firewall without complicated port forwarding. Using Remote Desktop over a VPN solves all of these problems. By setting up a VPN connection to your office you can connect to your desktop and work on files like you were in the office.

If all of this VPN info seems daunting, don’t despair. There is a remarkably simple software VPN that works on Windows, Mac and Linux. Hamachi (www.hamachi.cc) is free software that creates a virtual network over the internet to create conditions very similar to that as if all the computers were physically connected on the same network. It is incredibly easy to install (it even walks you through step by step setting up the network) and works as promised. You simply install the program, set up a private network with a password, install it on other machines, and connect them up. It is simple to browse windows shares and printers over the private network and all traffic is encrypted. There is no need for complicated firewall configurations and the resulting connections are as fast the upload speed of the networks you are on. Computers from multiple sites can all join a network and create a virtual local area network (LAN).

Once you have a remote access VPN connection between your local computer and your remote site, you can access your remote file shares, printers and other resources. It is also very easy now to use Microsoft Remote Desktop to connect to your remote machine. The advantage of using Remote Desktop is that you do not need to install local copies of your office applications. Remote connections needs to be activated on the remote machine and this requires Windows XP or Vista professional edition, but the local machine can be running almost any OS from any Windows to Macintosh or Linux. Remote desktop connection clients are available for most platforms. To activate remote connections go to the properties of “My Computer” on the remote machine and choose the remote tab. If you do not have a compatible machine in your office, try using VNC (uvnc.com is one version).

You enter the network name or IP address of the work computer into Remote Desktop client on your local machine. If you are using Hamachi, use the address that is provides for you by the connection client. Your office computer will appear in what ever state you left it, with documents and web browsers open. Working over remote desktop is just like working on your local machine, but you may need to adjust the connection settings for a slow network. Upon returning to the office, you can log back into your desktop and keep working and all the windows and applications will be in the same place you left them. Now all you have to do is find a beach with a Wifi connection and you are all set.