Remote access allows users from a local device to access a computer, server, or compute device “somewhere else” over the internet over a secure connection (you can also create secure connections on local area networks but for the most part this post discusses using remote access over the internet). As much of computing has moved to “the cloud”, users may not need remote access in the sense described here (e.g., you don’t need it in the way described in this post to access google drive/docs, drop box, Quickbooks Online). In other cases, like a webserver, where the server is a virtual machine in the cloud, administrators may use remote access to make changes to the underlying server environment in addition to using a browser to access a web server interface that uses their browser and a webserver on the other end.

There are a myriad of remote access alternatives, but overall they have some things in common. Most are multi-platform (computer & phone, Microsoft, Apple, & Linux). Remote access involves an encrypted connection or “tunnel” so “unwanted” internet users can’t see, record, access, save, change data between or on the compute devices involved. Once the encrypted connection is established, authorized users can then read, write, delete, and update data on the remote compute device and/or transfer data between devices.

Such connections often, though not always, involve some sort consistent internet address at the remote end, and port changes on the remote firewall (which allows the remote connection through the firewall). There is usually software running on both local and remote machines that may or may not use a server in between (a server in between can obviate the need for a static WAN ip or internet address at the remote end). Set up may or may not require IT staff (e.g., to tweak firewalls).

In some cases, once the tunnel is established users have a graphical user interface that allows them to act remotely as if they were sitting in front of the remote machine (in other cases, everything is done via a command prompt).

Another dimension is whether the remote access is a “paid-for” (e.g., a subscription with LogMeIn, TeamViewer unless for personal use, RemotePC) or free/open source (e.g., openssh or openvpn for the tunnel, and graphical user interfaces like VNC or Windows Remote Desktop). These sorts of connections can be configured so they have to be initiated at the local end, or the remote end.

One note of caution, remote access is keys to the kingdom, and if given to the wrong people, can be used to do real damage. E.g., you get a phone call that says Microsoft or Amazon is on the line, there’s something wrong with your computer and next thing you’d let them remote into your computer (don’t do this! see post on ransomware: a secure tunnel in and of itself does not prevent malware or ransomware if the tunnel can be accessed by a bad actor). Or someone gets ahold of your laptop where you store passwords (unless the hard drive is encrypted, it may be vulnerable if someone has physical procession) in your browser or files they’d need to get to a remote machine.

Remote access if done correctly can be handy for a wide range of users. Users can access a computer or server at a home or small office that runs an application not in the cloud, or that has data users don’t chose to put in the cloud. Remote access can be used to provide support, or maintain technology. Give us a shout if you’d like to discuss your needs or how various alternatives might suit.

Here are a list of remote access tools mentioned in this post: