Remote access gives you the power to control your equipment from anywhere, at any time, with any device. Historically an IT helpdesk tool, remote access technology is becoming recognized for its wider business benefits.

 

A comprehensive remote access strategy can benefit your employees and your business. To help clarify the basics of remote access and establish what's most important for your organization, we created this helpful remote access tutorial. 

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What is remote access?

An introduction to remote access

Remote access is the term used to describe the act of establishing a connection remotely with a device or computer in another location for the purpose of viewing or controlling the remote device. The term 'remote access' is often used interchangeably with the term 'screen sharing'.

A common use case is when a technical support agent connects remotely to an office computer to resolve a technical issue. Or, it could be a home worker or travelling employee using their mobile device to access corporate resources while out of the office.

It’s also described as the remote control of a computer by using another computer connected over a network - local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN), or the Internet.

The remote user can see the screen of and control the remote device. With the right permissions, it enables remote access to files, desktops, and applications. Actions can be performed on both attended and unattended devices.

Traditionally it has been used by IT help desks to support end users across their organization. However, it is increasingly being deployed so that home workers, distributed departments and even partners and customers can work productively from any location.

History and evolution of remote access technology

Remote access is a decades-old concept. The earliest example is from the 1950s, when terminals were connected to a mainframe in another part of a building. This was followed by the use of early modems to transmit data over phone lines. As modems became faster more data could be transferred, but the high cost of telephone line usage held back widespread development and adoption.

The advent of higher bandwidth Internet connections made long-distance remote access more practical and affordable.

The next step in the evolution of the technology was the development of virtual network computing (VNC®) in Cambridge, UK in the 1990s.

VNC technology allows one computer or device to remotely control another computer or device. It transmits the keyboard and mouse events from the remote computer to the other, relaying screen updates back in the other direction. This technology has proven invaluable for help and service desk functions and has also been integrated into a wide range of consumer and industrial products.

Today, remote access is used in many areas beyond the help desk. It supports remote working, Bring Your Own Device initiatives, remote training and collaboration across and between organizations.

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How does remote access work?

A remote access connection can be established within a closed network (like a LAN or WAN) or across external networks using the Internet.

The RealVNC software uses a technology called Virtual Network Computing (VNC®). VNC is based on a specialized network protocol called Remote Frame Buffer (RFB) that transmits input (keystrokes, mouse movements, clicks, etc) from the client (viewer) device to the controlled (server) device.

The remote viewer can do almost anything they could do were they sitting in front of the controlled computer. This includes application-specific tasks, accessing files and software, and running upgrades (provided they have adequate permissions).

Remote connections are typically established either using a direct connection, or a cloud connection via a cloud service.

Direct connections

Direct connections are frequently made within a closed network that has no internet access, such as a LAN. They are entirely configurable, enabling you to comply with your network environment or security policies.

A direct connection can also be made across an external network. To connect directly to a computer this way, however, you will need to be able to configure every firewall that stands between the two devices.

Cloud connections

Cloud connections are made via a cloud service. These connections are generally easier to establish and are more accessible than direct connections. Cloud connections require no administration and enable control of a device or a computer from anywhere to anywhere.

There are two types of cloud connections. In the first type, the cloud service acts as the relay mechanism for data between the two devices, passing the data through the cloud service. This relay can degrade performance and does introduce another link in the security chain, creating additional potential attack vectors.

Alternatively, a cloud-brokered connection can be established. The connection between the two devices is negotiated by the cloud service and once the connection is established, the cloud service steps back, allowing the two devices to pass data directly without data being relayed via the cloud. This architecture reduces latency and mitigates security risks.

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Benefits of deploying remote access

Evolving technology and business models are raising the visibility of remote access as a strategic corporate capability. It is helping to enable progressive business practices like remote working, supporting new revenue models such as remote customer training, and helping the IT team to managing an increasingly complex BYOD landscape.

With all this fantastic potential, organizations with the vision to develop a consolidated remote access strategy are realizing compelling business benefits across their entire organization.

Save time and money

For the IT team - Improves first call resolution and reduces the need for on-site service

Across the business – Facilitates greater team collaboration and resource sharing while reducing travel

Improve efficiency

For the IT team – Maximizes system performance and uptime

Across the business – Supports new revenue models and business ecosystems

Reduce risk

For the IT team – Mitigates security risks with new initiatives like BYOD

Across the business – Helps to meet best practice and compliance objectives

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Strategic use cases

While remote access has been more commonly used as a help desk tool, today we see the technology being applied in many new and innovative ways.

It is still widely used for IT support, but the business benefits offered by remote access are now being applied to improve operational efficiency across many different business use cases.

Support for BYOD

We all use a wide variety of electronic devices and these devices are finding their way into our working world.

Developing a remote access strategy can help to enable a secure Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) landscape that maximizes employees productivity.

Happy workers, lower costs and increased productivity; the benefits of allowing staff to work on their own smartphones, tablets and laptops are undeniable. The growing workforce of Millenials and Gen Z place greater emphasis on flexibility and collaboration and a good BYOD approach supports this, helping with talent attraction and retention.

Remote access technology can provide the means to remotely manage, monitor and support the growing number of corporate devices. With the right remote access software, device proliferation is no longer a barrier to operational efficiency, nor a risk to system and data security.

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The four pillars of remote access

See how remote access can support your business objectives

Find out how a consolidated remote access strategy can bring more agility, security and profitability to your business.

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Remote working and the wider business ecosystem

Decentralized working is the new normal. Whether it’s interactions with employees who are working from home, sales people out in the field, or support engineers who are on call, business is no longer inhibited by physical office locations.

A remote user is able to access software, documents and application resources running anywhere in the corporate estate according to their level of permissions. For example, system administrators might have full control of remote devices, but less privileged users might only be able to view a shared resource, and not control it.

Salespeople could let potential customers remotely test drive software in demonstration or training labs. Virtual sales appointments and demonstrations like this save time and money for both parties while demonstrating competitive advantage.

Remote training

The customer training use case is another great example of how remote access software can improve departmental efficiency while delivering innovative and effective customer services.

Giving organizations a means to train customers remotely through one-on-one sessions, or by accessing an online training lab, eliminates travel for instructors and students. It’s easier to arrange training sessions if participants can join from anywhere. This is more efficient for everyone, saving time and money, and creating happier customers.

Customer service

Improving customer service is a goal for many organizations. Because of competition and increasing customer acquisition costs, avoiding churn is a growing priority.

Remote access technology gives customer service advisors the ability to physically control a customer’s device, improving the quality and efficiency of customer experience. The ability to respond and solve problems quickly and with higher first call resolution delivers greater customer satisfaction.

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Barriers to use

Remote access software isn’t new, so many IT professionals will have experience with this class of software. Like any software, however, it has its own terminology and configuration requirements, so it’s worth exploring some of the potential business considerations and barriers to deployment.

Security

Understandably, the main concern people have with remote access software is security. Since it is such an important area, there's a dedicated Security considerations section, below. The important thing is to select a software vendor you can trust. They should have a transparent approach to their security architecture, support critical security features and have a proven track-record of protecting customer environments.

Deployment and support

Some people fear that it takes a significant amount of technical knowledge to set up and configure remote access software.

It’s true that some implementations can require configuration to work with local network environments or to connect across an external network. But it’s equally true that for IT professionals the required configuration to handle special circumstances generally shouldn’t prove difficult. It’s also true that for the majority of uses there are remote access software options that require little or no configuration, such as cloud-brokered connectivity.

Nonetheless, it is advisable to work with a vendor that has a strong support team, to assist both in setup and ongoing assistance. Your software subscription should include technical support and access to new releases of software. It’s worth confirming exactly what you get for your subscription since some vendors charge extra for major new product releases.

Too many options

The remote access market has a number of players, and with so many vendors and similar offerings it can be difficult to sort through your options.

Your decision should start with your business and technical requirements and an understanding of the ways remote access software can support your objectives (see the Benefits of deploying remote access and Strategic use cases sections, above). Once you’ve got a handle on that, you can map vendor offerings to those requirements with an enterprise wide remote access strategy in mind. Often times, organizations end up with multiple remote access tools used by different departments for different objectives. This fragmentation is extremely inefficient and costly and can be avoided by consolidating on a single flexible solution.

See the Choosing a remote access solution section below for pointers to asking the right questions as you undertake the process.

Cost

Some users look at the subscription cost for professional-grade remote access software and feel it is too expensive. This can be especially true given the availability of free open source software options. Let’s look at these in turn.

It is true that most free remote access software is built using old open source VNC technology or bundled with products from reputable providers (like Microsoft). But they generally represent a false economy for most organizations. They offer very limited security capabilities, no technical support, and unreliable product release roadmaps. They are also typically limited to specific operating system platforms and are restricted in their features and functionality. Given all these limitations, many organizations end up purchasing other software to fill the gaps.

So, while free is certainly an attractive price point, the compromises that come with that make them inappropriate and a false economy for enterprise organizations.

Vendors with paid subscription models typically license based on the number of support technicians or agents. This can make it expensive and awkward to deploy across an organization that has many potential remote workers, especially when considering the additional benefits and use cases for remote access technology described above.

However, a more flexible cost model allows you to pay either per technician, per remote computer you wish to control, or a combination of the two. Such a model is a better reflection of the way many estates are configured, and can be much more flexible and cost effective.

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Security considerations

Given the nature of remote access software, security is an absolutely critical consideration. Here are some of the security features you may want to look for when deciding to deploy a solution.

Session encryption

Is data passing between remote computers end-to-end encrypted? What level of encryption is used? Though you will need to decide the level of encryption that’s right for your organization, the minimum is likely 128-bit AES. More and more, however, industry standards and best practice require the use of 256-bit AES. These levels of encryption offer different benefits and trade-offs.

Multi-factor authentication

To ensure security best practice, all sessions should be authenticated before they start. For better security, multi-factor authentication is essential. This could be username and password as the first factor, and a one-time validation code or keychain that gets sent to your email or phone as the second level of authentication.

Granular access rights

Granular access rights refers to the control an organization has over each user’s access rights through the remote connection solution. You should be able to give each user the appropriate privileges they need; no more, no less. You should also be able to control the devices they can access through some type of group or team management structure.

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Security and Compliance

Security is critical to your remote access strategy

VNC Connect has security capabilities that are second to none and this whitepaper contains everything you need to know about our security features and architecture.

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Comprehensive audit trail

Audit trails for remote access sessions are an essential capability to achieve compliance and control. Your software should be able to provide insight into who did what, when, on which system, and at what time. This enables you to satisfy any queries or regulations enforced by auditors, as well as having visibility and insight should a breach occur.

Vulnerabilities

Even the most secure remote access software will have hackers attempting to breach its defenses. So it’s important to choose a vendor that is constantly working to analyse and correct any new vulnerabilities that are discovered in their software. They should be quick to act and transparent about the nature of the vulnerabilities and what they are doing to respond to constantly changing threats.

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Key players in remote access

Since RealVNC developed the world’s first screen sharing technology more than 20 years ago, the remote access industry has grown and matured. Today there are a number of major players in this market, each offering their own solutions with different architectures and subscription models.

This diversity can be confusing for those looking to compare remote access offerings from different vendors. At RealVNC, we believe that our VNC Connect remote access software delivers compelling advantages over the competition. We’re so confident that we’ve created documents that directly compare VNC Connect to our most common competitors.

VNC Connect competitors

Our common competitors are as follows:

  • Bomgar
  • LogMeIn
  • Microsoft – Skype, RDP and Quick Assist
  • Open Source – UltraVNC, TigerVNC, TightVNC
  • TeamViewer

You can download our comparison documents by visiting the Competitive Resource Page.

Independent product reviews

Another useful resource for product comparisons are independent product review websites. G2 Crowd is a leader in this space, providing IT professionals with valuable insights into a wide range of strategic software resources. Visit the RealVNC G2 Crowd page to read what users are saying about the key players in the remote access industry.

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Choosing a remote access solution

When considering remote access technology you should start by defining the use cases necessary to meet your business requirements. Will it be used to enable remote working? Will it be only the IT team remotely accessing system resources, or teams from other departments? What about training or allowing third parties access to controlled resources? Is BYOD a consideration?

Even if you aren’t sure how soon you will be undertaking some of these initiatives, it would be wise to acknowledge that business ecosystems are becoming more complex and interconnected. Therefore, you may want to ensure the solution you choose is able to support the maximum number of potential use cases in the future.

Before you invest, the areas you may wish to consider are as follows.

Cost

The question of cost should include both the subscription model as well as the total cost of ownership. Some points for consideration are:

  • What is the price of the annual subscription?
  • Is the annual subscription based on the number of technicians, remote computers, or both?
  • Is the licensing model flexible enough to be affordable for all your use cases?
  • Are there extra costs of support, maintenance or new software releases?
  • Will there be service costs for configuration and deployment?
  • Will you have to train employees to use the software?
  • If the solution isn’t easy to use or slows users down, what cost is associated with the loss of productivity?
  • Are there different pricing tiers and how will that impact the costs as you grow or adopt new uses?

Service and support

Your chosen vendor should have a reliable and reactive support team. If you have an issue, are you able to get help from their technical team? How quickly do they respond? Can you speak or instant message with a live support person or is it all email-based?

Capabilities

How well does the product perform? Are connections quick and reliable? Is a remote access session responsive, with acceptable latency? What is the user experience like? Does it “just work”, without a lot of management or resource expenditure?

Does it support the activities you need without unnecessary bloated features? Is it flexible enough so that you don’t have to alter the way you work? Does it integrate with your existing service desk and business systems?

Perhaps you already have a range of remote access tools in use across the organization to meet different requirements. Could a new solution help you consolidate those tools, which could save money, reduce security risks, improve efficiency and help compliance with industry regulations?

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Choosing a remote access software solution

How do you choose the right remote access solution?

It's vital to understand which remote access features can support your business goals. This ebook provides a framework for making a strategic remote access decision. 

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Security

Security is a critical consideration for remote access software and this topic is covered in the Security considerations section, above.

Ease of use

Will it take significant time and resources to get set up and running? Will your employees have to be specially trained? Or is the software you selected straightforward and quick to learn?

And, once set up, is it easy for your organization to use? How intuitive and flexible is the user experience? Will employees adopt it with little effort? History tells us that solutions that have a steep learning curve often don’t get fully utilized, or individuals choose to use unauthorized alternatives.

Product updates and roadmap

Is the software continually being developed by the vendor? Do they provide upgrades and patches? Are they easy to install and part of your annual subscription?

Does the vendor have a clear roadmap for the product? Do they have a history of innovation in remote access technology? Is remote access software strategic to their business?

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The future of remote access

Expanding market

We’ve already seen the evolution of remote access beyond the help desk, and with the parallel proliferation of BYOD and new business ecosystems, this is a trend we can expect to see continue.

The location of work is shifting as new devices mean it is no longer expected to be office bound. Employees increasingly seek the autonomy to work where and when they can, whether that be outside of usual 9-5 office hours, or in an entirely different location.

We are already seeing the remote access market expand beyond the traditional office workspace, into retail, consumer devices, automotive, banking and even healthcare.

ATMs, for example, are expected to become ‘smart’, enabling bank managers to ‘remote in’ and assist customers with transactions in real-time. Equally, ATMs could be managed remotely, so faults can be rectified and updates managed from any location.

Eventually, a combination of remote access technology and augmented reality could transform the way we train and educate, removing geographical barriers entirely. When tutors can ‘remote in’ to students' living rooms, real-time training can take place, allowing customers and staff to receive virtual training from any location in the world. They can extend educational access to those who might not be able to travel or are physically disabled.  

Furthermore, in the manufacturing sector, we can expect to see more intelligent ‘predictive maintenance’. This could involve machine learning and AI to remotely monitor machinery, empowering systems and engineers to spot faults before they occur, and proactively tackle issues before they reduce productivity or cause downtime.

Other sectors we expect to see benefit from remote access technology include retail, fleet management, and consumer electronics - indeed, any environment with valuable devices that require high uptime and reliable operation.