Remote Access Options
A common problem for home and business users alike is how to access files when away from the computer. Typical scenarios:
- Business users who want to access their office network from home
- Users who want to access their home or business network from a remote laptop
- Users who want to access their home or business network from any remote computer
There are a number of remote access options available, each with different strengths and weaknesses. They fall into four categories: Cloud Drives, File Replication, VPN, and Desktop Streaming. We'll discuss each below with an emphasis on free options.
The easiest, most common, and the recommended method is to use a "cloud drive" like Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive, etc. These services work by mirroring all (or part) of the files in a given folder onto the Cloud and onto any other computer connected to the same account.
For example, suppose I have an office computer and a home computer. I set up a cloud drive on my office computer. The drive puts a special folder on my computer. Any files I put in that folder get synchronized to the Cloud. This means I can access the files any time through a web browser. I also install the cloud service to my home computer and log in to the same account. Now all of those file also get replicated on the home computer.
Any changes to any of those locations get synchronized to the others. For example, if I change a file on my home computer, it updates both the Cloud drive and the same file on my office computer.
To use FileCenter with a cloud drive, just make sure your cabinets are in the special folder.
If you're just needing your office network files on a laptop, you can replicate the files to the laptop. Here are a couple of ways to do this:
Windows Offline Folders
Windows has an "Offline Folders" feature which creates copies of the network files on your computer. When you disconnect from the network, the files are still available to you, including the right network drive letters. When you reconnect to the network, Windows will synchronize your local cache against the network files.
- Pros: You always have access to the network files, even without an Internet connection; files remain in the same drive and folder structure.
- Cons: Windows synchronizes the files when you log off the network and when you log back on, which can be intrusive; some users complain that it is flaky; you must be connected to the network to synchronize.
- Cost: Free
- How to get it: See your Windows Help.
Microsoft now has a free utility called SyncToy. It synchronizes files between two computers. The advantage over Windows Offline Folders is that it is more configurable and has some very flexible options. It is also easier to use, and is reportedly less flaky than Windows Offline Folders.
- Pros: You always have access to the network files, even without an Internet connection; many different synchronization options; you control when the synchronization happens.
- Cons: Files do not appear under the network drive letter; you must be connected to the network to synchronize; the synchronization can be intrusive.
- Cost: Free
- How to get it: Do a web search for "SyncToy"
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way to connect to a remote network across the Internet. Once connected to the network, it is as if you were attached to it locally. The connection is established through a secure, encrypted "tunnel" to keep it private. Once you've connected to your network through a VPN, you can enjoy all of your network drives and even printers just like you would if you were at the office.
Many VPN solutions exist. Most networks these days are protected with firewalls, and most firewalls have built-in VPN capabilities. For offices that use Windows Small Business Server, the server comes with some very helpful VPN setup routines.
- Pros: You can access your entire network from anywhere that you have an Internet connection; you interact with the network in exactly the same way you do when connected to it locally, including the same drive letters.
- Cons: A VPN can be very complicated to set up; VPNs are notoriously slow; you can only use the VPN from a machine that is configured to connect to it; only works if you have an Internet connection.
- Cost: Varies; if your network already has VPN capability, you simply need to enable it.
- How to get it: See if your firewall, router, or server already supports it; otherwise find a geek to set one up for you.
Hamachi is a free VPN facilitator. You install the Hamachi client on each of the computers you want to connect together. A very simple tutorial shows how to create a new network and join the machines to it. Hamachi then takes care of connecting the machines to each other. It is as painless as VPN gets. From that point on, however, it is up to you to map your network drives, etc.
- Pros: Very easy, transparent VPN connection; unobtrusive; once set up, has all of the advantages of a standard VPN without the hassle; in theory, you could connect any computer to the VPN as long as it has an Internet connection.
- Cons: Still suffers from some of the speed problems of VPNs; it only takes care of the VPN connection itself; there is no hand-holding for getting your shared drives and folders set up.
- Cost: Free
- How to get it: http://hamachi.cc
Desktop streaming is simply a way to access your other computer remotely. Think of it as remote control. You can see the other computer's display on your screen. Any work you do is happening on the other computer. This works wonderfully for most purposes.
Windows Remote Desktop
Windows XP and newer have the ability to share their desktop across the Internet. Specifically, you "log on" to a remote computer from another computer. This lets you use the remote computer as if you were sitting at it.
- Pros: Depending on your network/Internet speed, it can be very snappy and responsive; you can do it from any computer, even non-Windows computers (with a special Microsoft utility).
- Cons: The computer you want to connect to must be left on; it also must have a fixed IP address which is visible from the Internet and you have to know what the IP address is, which usually isn't the case.
- Cost: Free
- How to get it: Check your Windows Help documentation
NOTE: Combining Windows Remote Desktop with a VPN, like Hamachi, is an excellent option. You have remote control of your computer over a VPN, and it doesn't require a fixed IP address (Hamachi provides this for you).
This is essentially the same as Windows Remote Desktop while overcoming many of its shortcomings. You install a small utility on the computer you wish to connect to, then you set up a username and a password. To connect to the computer from a remote location, you only have to open a web browser to www.logmein.com, enter the username/password of the computer, and it connects you. The computer's display appears in the browser window.
- Pros: All of the benefits of Windows Remote Desktop; you can use a web browser to see the computer's desktop; secure enough to use from anywhere, such as libraries or Internet cafes; file transfer between computers is possible.
- Cons: The computer you want to connect to must be left on.
- Cost: Both free and commercial versions available
- How to get it: http://www.logmein.com
This is essentially the same as LogMeIn, but it has been around longer.
- Pros: Same as LogMeIn; owned and operated by Citrix; works extremely well.
- Cons: Same as LogMeIn.
- Cost: Commercial (various licensing options available)
- How to get it: http://www.gotomypc.com
A number of years ago, Novell developed a utility called NetDrive that would map an FTP server to a local drive letter. For example, suppose that your office is willing to make all of the network files available via FTP. Using NetDrive, you could connect to the office FTP server and map it to a drive letter, such as p:\. To access office files, then, you simply browse your p:\ drive. Novell no longer maintains or supports NetDrive, but it is still widely available on the Internet.
- Pros: You can map a drive letter to the remote files without having to set up a VPN; saving or changing files on the drive automatically uploads them to the server; works through any Internet connection.
- Cons: Changing directories is somewhat slow; nowhere near as secure as a VPN; only works if you have an Internet connection; configuration isn't simple - if you don't know what FTP is, don't try it.
- Cost: Free
- How to get it: Do a web search for NetDrive; your best bet is to download it from a .edu domain (a university site)