Buyers (and non-buyers) guide to secure remote access

From free tools to scalable services and network solutions, businesses have numerous options for keeping mobile and remote workers connected

It always seems to happen. You finally take a couple of days off from work and head to the beach for some sun and sand. Inevitably, someone needs a piece of information only you can provide, and it's locked away on your office PC. Is it time to pack up the cooler and head back to the car?

Not if your office computer is set up for remote access. With a remote access solution, you can easily access your PC (or Mac) and answer the urgent question, all while sipping a drink with your toes in the sand.

Sound too good to be true? It isn't. There are a number of different solutions available to help make this a reality. In this guide, I'll cover the different types of remote access solutions, their advantages and disadvantages, their technical requirements, and what you can expect as far as usability.

[ The best free remote access tools combine firewall friendliness with easy remote access and an amazing array of features. See "InfoWorld review: Free remote access tools for Windows and Mac." ]

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat -- accessing your computer from outside the physical building is not something only Fortune 500 companies are capable of doing. There are many options available, from free and low cost to moderately expensive, that will allow you to access your PC from a remote location. All of them provide you with a way to connect to your office computer, run programs, and work with your files and data -- no more copying files to a USB drive to work on at home, and no more feeling cut off from the office while on vacation. Secure remote access is something that every business, big or small, should be doing to be more productive.

All of the techniques described here -- except for the hosted services -- require changes to your router or firewall. Each remote access method requires a TCP port to be opened in your router and directed at your desktop PC or server in order to allow the remote control program to function. Adding a port forwarding rule to your router or firewall is easy, and there are a number of online how-tos to help you accomplish your remote access dreams (just look up "port forwarding" on the Internet). Rest assured that an incorrect port forwarding rule will not mess up the router, but it can cause remote access to fail and produce more than a little frustration. If you aren't comfortable making changes to your router, a quick call to a local IT professional is the best course of action.

The remote access options:

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