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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help.