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How mobile remote desktop apps work

Remote desktop apps can serve as a starting point for enterprise mobility. They make Windows available anywhere, and IT can manage them easily.

Mobile remote desktop apps can be a valuable tool for mobile workers, allowing them to access their Windows applications through other devices.

For companies that plan to continue utilizing PCs, remote desktop apps are an opportunity to increase productivity. All that's needed to use a remote desktop app is a strong Internet connection, remote desktop software for the host PC, and a secondary device, such as a smartphone, tablet or other computer.

Desktop and laptop computers are no longer at the forefront of technological innovation, but they remain the device of choice for many of the tasks workers have to perform on a daily basis. Even so, these workers are not always sitting in front of their PCs. They travel. They attend meetings. They go home at the end of the work day. Yet, they still might need to access the resources available on their desktops.

That's where the remote desktop app comes in. It opens a portal from your mobile device to your desktop, providing full access to the files and applications that reside on the other side. And it streams your desktop to your mobile device and renders its interface as though you're sitting in front of your PC, even if you're thousands of miles away.

The technology behind mobile remote desktop apps

To establish a remote session between your mobile device and a desktop, you need several ingredients. The first is the host PC (the desktop you want to access). It must be turned on and connected to the Internet. In addition, remote desktop software must be installed on the PC to host the session. Remote Desktop Services are built into most Windows operating system editions to serve this purpose. The services use Microsoft's proprietary Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to facilitate secure communication between the host and the client.

Another component in the mix is the client device that accesses the host PC. This can be a smartphone, tablet, laptop or another desktop computer, although it's the mobile devices that provide the level of flexibility and portability many users are after.

A remote desktop protocol, such as RDP, provides the transport mechanism necessary to establish a session via the Internet and facilitate secure communications between the host PC and the mobile device. Some remote desktop apps use RDP to connect to Windows computers, while others use different protocols, meaning additional remote desktop software will need to be installed on the host PC.

Protocols can vary significantly from one to the next in terms of what platforms they support and how well they perform. Some will stream data better than others. Some make better use of resources. Some are specific to an OS. Some run independently from the OS. When evaluating remote desktop apps, be sure to take into account the protocols used, their impact on performance, and the operations they support.

Selecting mobile remote desktop products

You'll find plenty of products to choose from and criteria to evaluate. For example, the TeamViewer remote desktop app uses its own proprietary protocol; can connect to Windows, Mac and Linux desktops; and supports integrated file transfers between the PC and the mobile device. On the other hand, Microsoft's Remote Desktop app uses RDP to communicate with the host PC, but that PC must be a Windows computer. One benefit of the latter is that you don't have to install a host application. Both apps will run on Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices.

Although much of the focus on remote desktop apps goes toward employee productivity, they can also be a benefit to IT. Administrators can perform several key job functions and provide technical support from one location rather than having to be physically on-site to deal with a problem.

On the negative end, remote desktop apps are not as secure as a cloud storage service, which could provide a similar function in terms of remote access to files. Microsoft has issued two security fixes to RDP in recent years. There are also drawbacks not related to security. Remote desktop apps require a strong Internet connection to function properly and the user will be interfacing with a desktop operating system, which can be challenging to navigate on a mobile device.

There is certainly a level of risk involved in using remote desktop apps, and that may scare off some enterprise IT pros for whom there can be zero compromise on security. However, given the calculated risks involved with any program that runs through the Internet, the benefits of greater accessibility mean remote desktop apps could be a strategic fit in a wide range of enterprise environments.

This was last published in November 2014

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Would your workers benefit from mobile remote desktop access?
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That depends on what they're doing, but usually not - I've always preferred to have workers use desktops instead of relying on remote desktop access programs.
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