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COMMENTARY

It's Takes Remote Access to Work Virtually


By Shakil Ahmed & Rob Kay

Wouldn't it be nice to work from anywhere?

However, as those of us who spend time on the road know, there's more to working offsite than simply downloading your email from an Internet Cafe. Often times we need specific files or to operate a specific program that might be located on a different computer than our laptop or our home office machine. How on earth do we get to those files or that program remotely?

Then there's the problem of security. If we are not careful about transferring files it's easy for a hacker to hijack our documents or even snoop inside our home computer. To answer these questions, we looked at several products that any business small or large might consider for getting access to computers when you're away from the office or home.

GoToMyPc

GoToMyPc (www. GoToMyPC.com) has been around for several years and has consistently had rave reviews from the trade press. It's very secure, it's inexpensive and it's simple to use. (The whole setup process took us just 15 minutes from start to finish). Essentially, it allows you to access and control a Windows PC from any other Windows machine anywhere, anytime. Thus, if you are on the Big Island you can remotely view your computer screen in Honolulu and operate it from afar. That means you're able to access all of your computer's programs, email, files and network resources as if you were sitting in Honolulu. All you need to do is surf over to the GoToMyPC website and follow a few simple instructions.

We gave this program a good workout over the Christmas holidays from Molokai using a Toshiba Pentium II laptop and a Lava.net dial up account. For the most part it worked fine. For example, it was possible to get a addresses in order to write Christmas cards which we didn't have with us. Unfortunately one time out of five, there were stability problems. The program crashed necessitating another trip to the GoToMyPC website to get going again. This of course could be because we were using dial-up. We noticed that the program was much more stable with a newer desktop computer than our laptop. The good news is that the people that produce GoToMyPC will allow you a free trial period to road test the product. For a small business, or a sole proprietor, this is a really elegant solution. Test it first though. It may not work too well with older hardware. GotomyPc costs starts at 9.95 per month or $119.40 a year for a "1 PC Annual Plan".

PCAnywhere

The next step up the food chain is a product from Symantec called pCAnywhere. This is a program we've been using for years and the company has just come out with their latest version "pcAnywhere 10" which reportedly has some security improvements. The good thing about this product is that it allows the end user a lot of control over a remote desktop. Unlike GoToMyPC which just gives you a screen, pCAnywhere has a file manager that allows easy file transfer from one PC to another. The downside is that pCAnywhere can easily take you a couple of hours or even days to tweak before you've got it right.

The other downside is that even if it's set up properly there's still a security issue. If you're using it behind a firewall (which is the only sensible way to use it) you have to open up specific ports that will allow the program to operate. If not, your own firewall will block your entry for remote access. The problem is that by opening up your firewall, even if it's just a tiny bit, you've theoretically exposed yourself to bad guys. Also getting it to work with a firewall can be vexing. For example, we got it working smoothly with an SMC Barricade firewall but were unable to operate it with a Watchguard SOHO. The upshot: pCAnywhere has way more utility than GoToMyPc but could expose your data if you don't set it up properly. It's best used with a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and in our next column, we'll look at a SonicWall firewall with a VPN as a possible solution.

Stay tuned.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu networking and computer company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com. Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Published January 18, 2002

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