Thomas G. Stephens, Jr., CPA, CITP, CGMA
In today’s “anytime, anyplace” world, many business professionals have the need to access their data and desktops remotely. In some cases, this requirement is only occasional, while in others, it is standard operating procedure. In this article, we examine the best practices for remotely accessing the tools you need to get the job done.
First, Understand Your Options
Before you consider the technology you will use to facilitate remote access, first ensure that you understand your options. At K2 Enterprises, we see at least seven variants of remote access, each of which is described below.
- Data Only. In this environment, you only need to access data files such as Excel workbooks, PDFs, and similar documents. You will likely be served best by a Cloud-based data storage and synchronization tool such as OneDrive for Business or ShareFile. Under this approach, you will store all of your data files in the Cloud service and then simply access the Cloud service from the applications on your mobile device.
- Software as a Service. If your needs are greater than simply accessing data files, then consider what options you may have available using Software as a Service (SaaS.) For example, if you need to access your accounting application or your tax software, you may consider switching to a Cloud-based version of that tool, such as QuickBooks Online or CCH’s Axcess Tax. In this environment, your data and the related application are both in the Cloud, so ensure that you have adequate Internet connectivity before making this move.
- Hosted and Published Applications. Similar to the SaaS option outlined above, you may also consider moving to hosted or published applications. In this environment, you continue to run your traditional applications, but instead of them running from your desktop or server, they are run from a remote location and accessed through the Internet. The advantage of this approach compared to SaaS is that you do not have to switch to different applications; however, the tradeoff is that hosted applications sometimes do not run as efficiently as their SaaS counterparts.
- Remote Access Software. Many professionals are aware of tools such as, pcAnywhere and GoToMyPC, and use tools such as these to remotely access their desktops. These tools provide an affordable solution and, in some cases, are free and easy to set up. They also facilitate access to all applications on the desktop, and are easy to use. For these reasons, they are very popular when needing to remotely access a desktop on an occasional basis. Potential issues associated with their use include performance and multiple monitor compatibility. Further, in fact, the computer you wish to access remotely, must be turned on which can present a security issue.
- Virtual Desktops. For those needing to remotely access their desktops on more than an occasional basis, running full virtual desktop is a viable option. With this type of solution, you always access the desktop remotely, even if you are working in the office. Virtual desktops can be hosted on your internal servers or you can contract with third-parties such as Cetrom, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft.
- Virtual Private Network. This popular option allows you to access your desktop remotely through a “private tunnel” carved out for you on the Internet. Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), provides a cost-effective and relatively easy-to-implement and easy-to-use solution. One potential drawback to this approach, however, is the speed of the connection, as oftentimes VPNs run a bit slower than many of the other options listed.
- Virtual Everything. In a fully-virtualized environment, substantially all of your computing infrastructure – servers and desktops – is hosted elsewhere and is accessible from the Cloud. Like virtual desktops, in this environment, you always access your desktop remotely.
Second, Address Frequency
When considering best practices for remote access, you should address the issue of frequency, for this issue will have a major bearing on what constitutes a best practice for you. For example, if your need is only occasional – say, a couple of times per month – then using remote access software might be a viable solution for you. On the other hand, if you will need to engage in remote access several times a week, then virtual desktops, SaaS, VPNs, and/or hosted and published applications are likely the best options for you.
Third, Consider Security
No discussion of remote access is complete without addressing security. In general, each of the six methods identified above can provide relatively secure remote access. For example, virtually all remote access options incorporate encrypting your data as it is being transmitted. However, if you are using a Cloud-based data storage and synchronization tool, you should verify that your data is encrypted while it resides on the third-party’s server; in general, if you are using a consumer-grade service, the data is not encrypted at rest, whereas, if you are using a business-grade solution, it is.
Fourth, Making Your Decision
Given the summaries provided above, what constitutes your best practice for remote access? To answer this question, define your needs with respect to the data and applications you may need to access remotely, the frequency that you will need to engage your remote access solutions, and any specific security issues that exist. Once you have defined your needs, then consider the options available to you and choose the one that best addresses your needs. For example, consider the following scenarios:
- If you only need to access data files, then a Cloud-based, business-grade data storage and synchronization tool may be your best choice.
- If you need to remotely access your desktop on only an occasional basis, then remote access software might be your best choice.
- If your remote access needs are more than occasional, then make remote access your standard operating procedure by implementing a virtual desktop or a fully-virtualized environment.
- If you only need to access one or two applications remotely, consider switching to SaaS solutions or moving those applications to a hosted environment.
- If you want to maintain full, in-house control over remote access, then use a VPN approach.
As you can see, you have a number of very good options available for remotely accessing your data and applications. The challenge is deciding which of these approaches will provide you with the optimal solution that best addresses your needs. By following the four-step process outlined above, you should be able to implement your best practice for remote access with ease.