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Remote Computing

A very popular trend that has been growing since the mid eighties is telecommuting, using your computer form home or any remote location to go to work. Now, with greater power than ever in laptops and the newer portable workstations you can be at work while physically sitting at home. Ideally, it is like having extremely long extension cords on your mouse, monitor and hard drive. What ever you do at home is reflected on your system at work.

Now, the benefits are not only with the worker, the company has a lot to gain by permitting their workers to perform their functions off site. I just became a manager of my own area where I work and gained a new respect for my boss when I found out all the budget items I was now responsible for. Internal charges are made for the cubicles the staff use, the company needs to provide parking, food services, health services, elevators, air conditioning and a plethora of other expenses for every person that works on site. It is less expensive for the company to let you work from home. Statistically, the remote worker puts in more hours, is available for emergencies at any time and takes less sick days. I included this just so you can go to your boss if your company does not have a remote computing policy.

Since the goal is to make your connection at home as transparent as possible when online at work several protocols have become popular to permit this kind of access. There are two main factors that must be balanced, speed and security. When I first started to work from home in 1982 the means to connect was primitive. I had a 2800 baud modem, later upgraded to 56kbs and with the then new Windows 3.0 the screen at home slowly painted whenever I clicked my mouse. Todayís software is almost instantaneous with its response. Back then the method to provide security and connectivity was the peer-client software package. While mostly superceded by direct protocols now Symantec does still carry PC-Anywhere in its catalog of software. With this package you are required to have a copy running in host mode at work and the program in client mode to connect. This requires installation of the software on any machine you want to connect to or work from. While once the most popular method of remote computing many companies are now opting for a more direct approach.

Almost all remote computing solutions provide access to your company network, a workstation or work environment, printers, both remote and local as well as disc drives, CD drives and other storage media.

Most networks are internally wired; the company owns all the assets required to provide connectivity. There is a protocol called VPN, Virtual Private Network that uses the regular internet to extend the company internet or intranet to allow remote uses to tie in. VPN affords the same capabilities as private leased lines without the cost overhead by using the existing public infrastructure. Security is provided by the VPN protocol by encrypting each packet of data at the home computer and decrypting it at work. In order to sign on the user typically has a small device that usually looks like a keychain or a small pocket calculator that creates a random alpha numeric key. This key is typed in by the user and validated before the connection is fully established. Usually the user has to type in a special ID code to seed the random number so someone would have to physically posses your little keychain and know your code to make the connection. VPN is available as a proprietary protocol from a variety of companies and there is even an open source VPN for the more cost conscious company.

In order to increase security on VPN systems there is a method called tunneling that is employed. With tunneling the user while on the VPN is unaware of the public nodes of the internet. Basically what this means is while you are connected to work you can only see your companyís network, you canít surf the net at the same time. Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is widely used by Microsoft and supported by their products. This method locks out normal internet traffic while giving you a direct line to your company network. The protocol was initially created by Cisco and is pretty much an industry standard in banks and other financial institutions. Tunneling is not a substitute for encryption, which is handled by the software on both sides of the connection and the little security access devices described above. VPN is now mostly under the control of the VPNC, the Virtual Private Network Consortium, an organization responsible for the standardization of the protocol.

Now that you have your connection to work in place you have to be able to work. This takes another layer of software. There are currently a few popular solutions available. Many companies use several of these methods in order to ensure users with a wide range of access needs are able to access the network at work. Upper management may only need email and the ability to share reports and documents while a developer will require access to his or her software tools and a development environment. Support staff members will require almost complete access to the network.

Citrix is a very popular solution to remote connectivity. With this system you donít actually connect to your work machine, you connect to a bank of servers that emulate a workstation environment. The benefit here is the company does not have to provide an actual workstation, there is much greater control of your working environment and there is greater centralization to the remote computing hardware. The downside is the user is restricted to whatever programs are given to their profile and any change in the environment will require the intervention of support staff. This is mostly used for the more casual remote user. Citrix provides multiplatform support so UNIX, Wintel and users of other operating systems users can all access the system.

Next up on the food chain is VNC, Virtual Network Computing. With this software the user has a host and client software installed and can control your remote computer as if you where sitting at your desk at work. Unlike solutions like Citrix you still need a dedicate workstation at work that you control. This solution also provides multiplatform support which includes Wintel, UNIX, Mac and several other operating systems. A Wintel user can access a UNIX server for example. VNC is very small, about 150-300K. It is easy to install and maintain and provides a fairly transparent platform to the client. VNC is available in an open source form that is free for use. There are also proprietary variations that provide a few extras available for a licensing fee. With many incarnations of VNC the connection is a bit slow. There is a noticeable delay in the response of your keyboard and mouse.

Finally, we should consider the remote desktop solution built in to most recent versions of the Windows operating system. While not as platform independent as other software if you are in an XP oriented company it is one of the better ways to connect from a remote site. Remote Desktop is a variation of the terminal server services function previous found in Windows 2000. This permits any two computers running XP to be connected and for you to use the remote computer as if it was a windowed application on your only machine. Once your connection to work is established you just open the remote desktop application, enter a valid user name and password for your work network and youíre in. There are several options available such as remembering your password, control over whether you want the remote desktop wall paper sent over and whether to use your local or remote printer. You can even set things up so that your local drives are available to your remote system. This will greatly expedite transferring files between the two systems.

One little tip to remember if you have any problems with finding computers on yoru work network. There is a little file left over from those dim, dark DOS days that associates an IP address with a machine name. From your WINNT folder go into System32 then Drivers, in there is a folder called Etc. Open it and there is a file called hosts. Open that with notepad. All you need to do is enter the IP of the work machine followed by a tab and then the machine name. Do this for each machine you need to access. Save this and your problems with locating machines on the remote net will be gone.

Now that you are all set up to work remotely remember that you are still at work. If you have little children invest in a caregiver and make it known to your family that when you are online at work you are at work. This ability is more than a convenience. I would have to be on disability if not for the fact that my job lets me work from home. This can also be used to extend maternaty and paternity leave. So, welcome to the 21st century where the internet can be used to free you from that confining cubical.

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