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Remote desktop access provides mobility boon

Although mobile remote desktop apps do pose negatives, the anytime accessibility might be worth the plunge for enterprise IT.

Remote desktop apps do pose drawbacks in functionality and security, but under the right circumstances, the boost in productivity is enough to overcome their shortcomings.

Remote desktop apps can provide a number of benefits to telecommuters, IT administrators, business travelers and anyone else who needs to connect to a PC from another location. Through these apps, users can access their files and applications from anywhere at any time, as long as they have an adequate Internet connection. IT can also utilize remote desktop apps, using them to troubleshoot computers at another location or to provide tutorials. Whether the goal is accessibility from outside of the office or outside of office hours, the benefits of remote desktop access are significant enough to make them worthy of consideration.

Benefits and limitations of remote desktop apps

Regardless of which remote desktop app you choose, most of them offer the same basic benefits. One of the biggest is the ability to access files and applications on your PC from anywhere you have access to the Internet. A remote desktop session also lets you configure OS settings, launch business applications, run multiple apps and perform any other necessary operations. In this way, you can take full advantage of the PC's processing and computing capabilities, while using your mobile device as a thin client for that anywhere/anytime access.

For many businesses and individuals, the gains in productivity and convenience provided by remote desktop apps far outweigh their security risks.

All this flexibility, however, is not without its limits. To connect to a remote desktop, you need a reliable and fast Internet connection. Anything less and you end up with high latency and low frame rates. Even under the best connection, video streaming can be a challenge. In some cases, for quick and easy operations, your wireless phone network might do the job. But for the most part, you'll want to stick with Wi-Fi and a solid Internet service.

The Internet isn't the only challenge. The devices on which remote desktop apps run are inherently limited in comparison to what you can do on a PC. Desktop operating systems are designed for big screens and are built with keyboards and mice in mind (until Windows 8). Mobile devices provide smaller screens for rendering much larger real estate and rely a great deal on touch operations. Imagine trying to manipulate hundreds of rows of data in an Excel spreadsheet on your iPhone 6.

Security is another important consideration when deciding whether to utilize remote desktop technology. A couple years back, Microsoft had to release a security fix its proprietary Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Without that patch, an attacker could execute remote code against a targeted machine during pre-authentication by sending a sequence of crafted RDP packets. That wasn't the only security incident involving RDP. This past June, Microsoft released a security update to address an RDP vulnerability related to signature verification of the message authentication code. The vulnerability could allow man-in-the-middle attacks that modify RDP content.

Just one month later, several U.S. government organizations, including the Secret Service and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, warned of the spreading threat of Backoff, a point-of-sale malware program that attacks companies running remote desktop apps, such as Microsoft Remote Desktop, Apple Remote Desktop, Chrome Remote Desktop, Splashtop and LogMeIn.

Putting the remote desktop app to work

For many businesses and individuals, the gains in productivity and convenience provided by remote desktop apps far outweigh their security risks. There are a variety of scenarios where remote desktop access provides the benefit of flexibility. People who work at home can connect to their work computers. People at work can connect to their home computers. People at one branch office can connect to computers in another branch office. People out in the field can connect to their desktops.

Remote desktop apps have been a boon for administrators in particular. No longer do they have to travel from office to office or city to city to work on a computer. They can restart servers, access remote virtual machines, launch services, manage hypervisors, or connect to rack servers in the next building or on the other side of the world. Administrators can also provide technical support remotely by connecting to a user's machine to troubleshoot issues or configure desktop and application settings.

Non-IT types can also use remote desktop apps to perform their jobs more efficiently. Imagine someone working at home who has left an important Word document on his desktop at the office. He might need to retrieve the entire document or refer only to information within the document. Whichever the case, that person needs only start up his remote desktop app and access the file. Employees working remotely can also access information stored in their address book or calendar, or in any data store that exists solely on that computer.

Another benefit is that users can run any of the desktop's applications or services from their mobile device. For example, if users need to download a large application to the desktop, they can start the download process remotely so when they come into the office the installation files are waiting. Other operations a user can perform include removing applications, applying updates, checking the status of a monitoring tool, and granting temporary access to another user.

A remote desktop app can also be useful in such situations as trainings or demonstrations. For instance, an administrator at a different location can demonstrate how to configure a server setting as the user watches, or an accountant can connect to a spreadsheet on his desktop to show a colleague the company's latest earnings. Remote desktop access offers endless possibilities, as long as you have a proper network connection and can work around the device's limitations.

Beyond the remote desktop app

Despite all the great tasks you can perform with a remote desktop app, it is still not a desktop. It is an approximation of one. A remote desktop app holds value in its ability to connect with a desktop, but it's important to remember that the PC is still the one responsible for performing operations.

You might also find that some of the value you derive from a remote desktop app can be better realized through the use of cloud services such as Dropbox, Office 365 or Evernote. There's also a security benefit to using cloud services. You reduce the attack surface area by not opening up your entire desktop to the Internet when you establish a remote connection.

Considering the risks, a remote desktop app, particularly when running on a tablet, might prove to be a valuable tool when you need to combine portability with the power of your PC. Just keep in mind the app's limitations and remember that no function involving the Internet is ever 100% secure.

This was last published in November 2014

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Are remote desktop apps useful enough to overcome concerns about security and functionality?
I think so. We're all so accustomed to using remote desktop functionality at my organization that I don't know what we'd do without it. 
Remote desktop apps such as R-HUB remote support servers provides manay benefits in terms of security, low costs, flexibility etc.