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What’s the best way to work remotely?

It seems like everyone is connected to the office by smartphones. iPads and Android tablets are all the rage. These items can be very functional and helpful. However, ensuring basic rock-solid communication for times when you want to sit down and work remotely is typically less flashy. Don’t get me wrong – I love the iPad app that connects into iManage Document Management just as much as the next guy (OK, more than the next guy). It’s great for pulling up info you might want during a deposition or a trial or wherever you are on the run. The things you can do with your phone or tablet can be downright impressive if set up properly. Nevertheless, most people are not going to sit down with an iPad to spend hours remotely reviewing and editing a document.

Remote access options are commonplace, yet I find many firms have a less than ideal arrangement for these basic services. A little while back, I began working with a law firm with multiple offices and “road warrior” attorneys traveling across the country. They had poor remote access and one of the very first things we did was correct this by implementing Terminal Server (which was the most appropriate solution for the particular needs of their firm). The partner responsible for the decision commented, “I wish someone had talked me into fixing this years ago.”

Let’s first consider three popular methods that people employ for basic, everyday remote access: VPN, Remote Web Workplace, and Terminal Server. We’ll review how each of these work and things you should consider.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is actually used to describe two distinct technologies: Site-to-Site VPN and Client VPN. Site-to-Site VPN connects multiple offices together via network devices at each location. Site-to-Site VPN is fairly reliable and can be very useful to connect multiple office locations together. An entirely different VPN, called Client VPN, connects remote PCs into an office network. Client VPN tends to be more prone to issues. I generally recommend avoiding Client VPN (it can work, but it’s fundamentally less robust than other solutions). In very limited situations, Total Networks will implement and support the most modern type of Client VPN called SSL Client VPN (built on web browser communication which is more reliable than the more commonplace older-style client VPN). This works and supports general purpose access, but is never our recommended approach due to reliability and performance limitations inherent in any client VPN solution.

I recommend two extremely robust alternatives (which are also common throughout many firms): Remote Web Workplace (RWW) and Terminal Server (TS). If you exclusively use desktop systems in your office, RWW is an extremely reliable and cost-effective option for remote access. If you have laptop users who primarily use a laptop in the office that they then take home, then TS is the recommended approach.

RWW is an extremely easy-to-use functionality built into Microsoft Small Business Server (which is the foundation of many business’ networks). If you do not have Small Business Server, there are extremely cost-effective options that use a similar approach to RWW. With RWW, you access your PC in the office from a remote PC. This can work not only from remote PCs, but from portable devices such as tablets (it can work from phones as well, but the screen size limits the usefulness of this). This is a great solution, but if you don’t have a PC that you leave in the office, but rather have a laptop you take home, this doesn’t work and TS is the appropriate solution.

TS is a separate shared server that provides a remote desktop experience much like RWW does, except that you do not need to have a PC in the office to connect to. You can access TS with a laptop, home PC, tablet, or smartphone. It’s also worth mentioning Citrix since some people are still using Citrix and are familiar with this term today. TS has it’s foundations over 20 years ago as a solution by Citrix Systems under a licensing agreement with Microsoft. For the past decade or so, Microsoft has been providing this functionality directly while Citrix now provides limited enhanced functionality layered on top of TS and is targeted towards very large organizations. Citrix is often no longer needed since TS alone provides the functionality that satisfies the remote access needs of most firms.

Due to the various options, and the technical nature of the issue, I know that remote connectivity options can be a little confusing. If you have any questions or would just like a simple validation of what you’re doing, send me a note at dkinsey@totalnetworks.com and I’d be happy to help.

Posted in: Ask the IT Expert

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4 Comments

  1. Martin M August 18, 2011

    This might be a way for your to sell your services but I strongly disagree with what you’ve stated above. I’ve been using various Client VPNs (and Site to Site VPNs) as well as TS/Citrix solutions and I have had good experience with Client VPNs and pretty poor experience with TS/Citrix.

    I used to live in a country where it was normal for households to have 10mbit upstream as well as downstream and sure, the TS solutions worked ok. Nonetheless you cannot get away from the fact that all the processing gets done on the server and is submitted to the client.
    When using a Client VPN you are doing all the work on your local computer and just have access to the files on your company network.

    Sure it requires that you have a computer that has applications installed, most of the work remoters do could be covered with a few basic applications. If you lack an application, ok then connect to a TS server or similar.

    That approach has worked for me for many years now and I see how my wife is struggling using her Citrix to try to review and edit documents.

    Best regards,

    Martin

    reply
    • dkinsey August 18, 2011

      Thank you very much for your reply, Martin. Dialogue really helps further everyone’s understanding.

      I can’t speak to the specific issues your wife is encountering with Citrix, but I can speak to the way the remote desktop technology works and why a great deal of firms rely on Remote Web Workplace (actually called Remote Web Access in the latest version of SBS) or Terminal Server (or Citrix). For the purposes of our discussion, let’s collectively call this “remote desktop” since that’s how both RWW and TS/Citrix work.

      You are correct in that a Client VPN can allow you to work on your local computer and have access to the files on your company network. While I agree with the inference that the best experience is generally experienced by running applications natively on your PC, Remote Web Workplace and Terminal Server (particularly Server 2008 R2), should provide an extremely good experience if properly configured. If setup and maintained properly, it can be almost indistinguishable with working off of a local PC.

      Regarding network connectivity, both bandwidth and latency conspire to make client VPN performance less than ideal. Most applications work very well with a LAN, but a when you have a WAN, it can get very problematic. That’s where the remote desktop approach works so well. It’s specifically designed to work very well over a WAN. Remote desktop requires extremely low bandwidth and is very forgiving with respect to latency.

      Latency is often the bigger killer for remote access over a VPN. Chatty applications that continuously talk with the server, wait for a response, send another request, etc. do not work in an acceptable fashion in a VPN configuration. There are many applications that simply do not perform acceptably with any sort of latency. Amicus Attorney is one application that comes immediately to mind, but there are many others. The only way to get reasonable performance with these applications is through a remote desktop approach. Running a chatty application on a remote desktop works great since all of the chattiness happens locally on a LAN and the screen efficiently appears on your remote desktop.

      For what I’m taking as your specific example, I’m reading into what you’ve posted that your wife is trying to edit Word documents and is required to do this through Citrix/TS. You could alternatively access documents over a VPN, but this is problematic. You may find that you work OK this way, but I’ve also seen where people get frustrated with this and then setup Windows offline folders to automatically synch copies of files. This can work OK, but is more complex and can frequently end up with synchronization problems, particularly if someone else goes to edit the same document (there are other situations as well that can cause problems). In this configuration, sometimes people decide to just copy documents locally and then copy it back. Once again, they may clobber updates someone else did on that same document while they worked on their copy, they may forget, or not bother to copy the files back to the server and now you have the original and only copies of important company data shared on a home PC.

      I’m not sure what problem your wife is encountering, but I do understand that few things are as frustrating as technology not working the way that you need it to work. A remote desktop solution really should be the best approach and the issues should be fixable. If you could describe the problem that she’s encountering a little better, it would be helpful. It would also be helpful to understand what version of Office and version of Terminal Server & Citrix (if you have that info).

      Thanks,

      Dave

      reply
  2. Maury Markowitz July 27, 2012

    “RWW is [snip] This can work not only from remote PCs, but from portable devices such as tablets (it can work from phones as well, but the screen size limits the usefulness of this).”

    I don’t believe this is true. RWW *appears* to require an ActiveX control to be installed on the client machine. This can be accessed *smoothly* only from IE. So basically the client needs to be running Windows in order to use RWW.

    I have seen tantalizing hints that there are ways around this, but nothing is verified and the Google-verse appears to consider this “not possible”.

    reply
    • S. Kinsey July 30, 2012

      I understand the potential confusion in my post. You are correct in that Remote Web Workplace or Remote Web Access as it is called now in SBS 2011 requires ActiveX, so you are talking about accessing RWW or RWA specifically from a PC, not from a typical tablet or phone.

      I indicated that you don’t have to have SBS to access your PC remotely and you can actually remote control your PC directly in a number of devices including from a tablet or a phone. There are many applications you can use access to your PC. RWW/RWA is arguably the slickest setup if you have SBS and are accessing from a PC at home, but there are many ways to accomplish the same feat. The most straightforward means to accomplish from a PC into the office without SBS is probably to use port redirection on your firewall to redirect an RDP session to your PC. Doing this from a tablet or phone is not terribly difficult either with a number of ways to accomplish this.

      reply

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