Remote access software

Written by Fawzia Sheikh

There’s a gee-whiz moment the first time you use remote-access software. Seated at your home computer — or working on your laptop from the foot of a hotel bed — you marvel as the screen displays your office computer’s desktop, allowing you unrestricted access to the latter’s files.

The cool factor goes beyond being able to use one machine to control another from afar. No more having to go back to the office after hours to use a file you just realized you need but isn’t on your remote PC. Also cool is the flexibility gained by installing remote access company-wide, boosting productivity as you free your staff from being tied to their office machines.

Yet this pleasant prospect shouldn’t blind you to the dangers of stumbling badly in the implementation. You could underbudget, only to find yourself with a cheap server you soon have to replace. You could neglect security safeguards, allowing outsiders to snoop through your firm’s data. Or you could entrust the installation to in-house techies with no experience in such applications, then have to call in outside help when they make a mess of it.

The risks aren’t in the software itself, which is quite user-friendly. Remote access has taken off in the past couple of years since a new generation of applications — such as AccessAnywhere from San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx Communications Inc. and from Citrix Online of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. — replaced their slow, cumbersome and insecure predecessors. Yet ease of use doesn’t guarantee a smooth rollout.

Larry Poirier, CEO of Nitro Microsystems Inc., an Ottawa-based systems integrator, says a common blunder is trying to save a few thousand bucks by purchasing a slightly older server. He says that you’ll be forced to upgrade after just two years — half as long as the server should last — to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars: “I’ve seen this many more times than people are willing to admit.”

Poirier also recommends insisting that vendors spell out the full implementation costs, including software, hardware, installation, IT staff training, future software upgrades and maintenance. And get it in writing: “Don’t accept verbal commitments,” he says. “The salesman promising you it will be fine probably won’t be there next year.”

You may also find yourself forking out more than planned if you’re unwilling to live with one of the software’s imperfections: a brief lag before it responds to your mouse commands. Cryopak Industries Inc., a Delta, B.C.-based maker of temperature-control products, inherited a remote-access system when it bought a firm in Montreal. But it was unhappy about the delay on the ADSL line connecting its new office with Delta. The fix: a high-speed T1 line for $1,600 to $2,000 per month.

That’s not cheap. Still, Martin Carsky, Cryopak’s president and CEO, says the flexibility of being able to access files from anywhere via a desktop or laptop is worth the cost. It means his staff can take a break during work hours to take their kids to ballet or Little League, then make up the time elsewhere.

Security is another pitfall lying in wait. Praful Shah, WebEx’s vice-president of online sales, says not all remote-access software protects adequately against misuse. This can leave your network open to virtual prowlers. Shah advises investing in a service that verifies users’ identities via passwords and offers extra protection such as automatically calling customers by cellphone to ask for their password.

You can also make a mess of your rollout if you entrust it to IT staff who don’t know the program. Poirier cites an Ottawa-based organization that had to call him for help after its two IT staff ran into trouble. “They tried to just buy the parts and put it together and make it work themselves,” he says. “But their technical people had never installed this before. They didn’t know the pitfalls, the dangers. The software started to crash. Of course, they blamed the software, when in reality they hadn’t set it up properly.”

A botched rollout may turn employee sentiment against the software. However adept your IT team is at handling most projects, this is one time when it’s prudent to call in the pros.

© 2005 Fawzia Sheikh

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