The MSP’s Guide to Remote Access for Work From Home
As a technical professional, you have to weigh how you help your clients navigate the chaos of work from home. This is especially true in times of disaster like we are currently going through. One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out how to enable users to access their data and other internal resources. You usually have the choice between using a VPN and some kind of remote control solution (VDI, terminal servers, or software like Trugrid or TeamViewer).
While people may have a preference, none of these solutions is inherently better than the other. The biggest difference is in the use case for each solution. A VPN has advantages over remote control on some fronts, but remote control solutions are better for others. A VPN differs heavily from standard remote control solutions, but each has its own advantages. What all goes into determining which one is right for your business?
VPN vs. Remote Control Solutions
A VPN connects a machine to a network as if it were there, while a remote control solution allows you to control a machine as if you were in front of it. The difference is subtle, but substantial. A VPN offloads the computational load to your end user’s machine, while the remote control solution trades bandwidth for connectivity.
VPN stands for Virtualized Private Network. This basically boils down to the connection acting like a long ethernet cable spanning the internet from your user’s device into the network. Your user is also subject to the slowest bit of bandwidth between the sites, so if they have slow internet or the company has slow internet, the user has a slow connection.
Remote control solutions require more consistent bandwidth and better latency, but files don’t usually need to leave the network. When you remotely control the session, it’s like you’re there (except over the internet). A high latency connection with high bandwidth is just as miserable as a low bandwidth connection. You trade one issue for the other.
Remote control solutions also have many different types. You can go with a remote control via Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), (cloud) terminal servers, or software like TeamViewer or TruGrid. Each of these has its own pros and cons which we’ll get into in a bit.
Benefits of a VPN
Latency usually isn’t an issue with a VPN unless you rely heavily on localized resources for access. When your employees deal heavily in Office or similar, a VPN is usually more than enough. But, when the files get bigger, a VPN breaks down fast. As more employees connect in and transfer files, the process gets slower for everyone.
When you use a VPN, you need to connect into the network to do anything. If you want to read a file, you end up copying it over to view it. Moving a file between folders can be a huge pain. If you have huge files, this gets to be an issue. A film company isn’t going to want to use a VPN to access their data remotely unless they have a ridiculous connection (and few employees), or host everything in the cloud.
VPNs are usually the easiest solution to implement with any enterprise grade networking hardware. You don’t usually need a subscription or a platform to host it. You don’t need a separate server or anything either with most higher end routers. It’s the closest to a one size fits all approach you can get without taking a reductionist approach.
Benefits of a Remote Access Solution
Remote control solutions consume more bandwidth on average just to function, and have higher latency requirements, but they have many benefits over a VPN. A VPN relies on you needing access, but limits the throughput to your connection. If you have mediocre internet, you aren’t moving big files efficiently. A remote access solution allows you to do so, because you’re tied into the system itself.
When you have to move files, or have specialized software, remote access tends to beat a VPN. The other benefit is that remote access software or solutions come in a variety of forms. You have Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) which emulates a desktop in the cloud, cloud based and server based terminal servers, and software like TeamViewer or TruGrid to take over a machine. Each has its own specialty and use case.
A VDI setup is more per month than many solutions, but mitigates most local requirements in order to smooth out the costs. You don’t need to focus on local issues, you just focus on using the desktop. Terminal server environments basically pool and average the costs of your users using certain software and performing certain tasks. You consolidate data and functions on a single server and average out the spikes in workload.
Software like TruGrid or TeamViewer allows users to connect into their machines remotely. These solutions tend to use more bandwidth on average than many other solutions at idle, but make the user able to use anything on their work computer. It can also be done on an ad hoc basis with virtually no necessary prep work.
The biggest thing which will make one type of setup more or less effective than another is the network connectivity. This doesn’t just mean the network at the office, but the network each employee uses. It may sound crazy, but there are people who still use DSL. There are also people working off of satellite internet.
You have to account for the raw bandwidth and latency of the connection on both ends. You also need to know what their use case is. If you have people moving large CAD files around, it’s probably going to work out more efficiently to enable some kind of remote access scenario for your users. You don’t need to worry about how long it takes to transfer the file outside of the network if it never has to leave. This does require the user to have a steady enough connection to use.
VPNs are best suited to places with small or limited file transfers, and more minor tasks like email and intranet site access. Email and many internally hosted sites have moved to the cloud already though. Another use case is when there is high latency for a user. VPNs work well when users are under BYOD policies and are used to their own system as well.
Making the Right Choice
No one choice is right for all use cases. Sometimes you may just need to implement multiple solutions. Provide remote access to the people working on CAD and a VPN to the finance people who just need Excel. This complicates the setup, but can optimize your bandwidth usage, reduce issues with certain people’s setups, and can work out cheaper.
You need to assess what your client does, what network resources they have, and what their employees are used to. You also need to take into account your client’s attitude towards technology. Each choice is completely conditional.
VPNs may be impractical or pointless for many cloud environments, but that doesn’t mean anything if your client uses on-premise applications. VDI may make the most sense, but the client may just plain not trust the technology or the cloud. Remote access may fit the company, but may not fit the employees. This is especially true in many rural areas. You need to understand your client’s needs to understand what is right for them.
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