Reclaim Your Life Through the Remote Desktop

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted June 02, 2006

My friend Frank owns several businesses that are all very different from one another. One is a limo company, one is a construction business and the last one is a small bar-restaurant. Each business has it own company e-mail, private network servers, high-speed Internet connection and some fairly boring, but crucial, programs specifically customized for that particular business. A few weeks ago we got together for dinner and he was telling me how much of a toll his businesses take on his time. He spends his days traveling between each of his offices, which are spread out among the various boroughs of New York.

If you're at all familiar with the New York metro area, you know that traveling between boroughs can be incredibly time-consuming, easily costing between 6-8 hours a day. Throughout our conversation, I couldn't help thinking to myself that this poor guy didn't need to be putting himself through all this, and that he could cut down his travel time tremendously by simply using a feature built into Windows XP Professional called Remote Desktop.

By enabling Remote Desktop on each of his office systems, he could then use the Windows PC at any one of his offices (or at home, in a hotel and so on) to gain access to the PC on his desk at every one of his companies. The beautiful thing about Remote Desktop though is that unlike a typical VPN connection, which will give a remote PC access to the company network, Remote Desktop will actually allow you to see and control your office PC as though you were sitting directly in front of it. This means that you could check your desktop calendar, review important documents and presentations, access proprietary company applications and even print to the office printers from anywhere.

So, for example, in the past Frank needed to travel into his office at the limo company to work out rates, schedule pickups and print out itineraries for his drivers. Now thanks to Remote Desktop, he can schedule cars from the comfort of his home or from his office at either of the other companies, and then send the driver's schedules directly to the limo company printers without ever having to make an on-site visit or deal with traffic.

Needless to say, he's very happy. Thanks to Remote Desktop, he has not only reclaimed his weekends, but his schedule during the week is now much more efficient, allowing him to accomplish more from one location throughout the course of the day and wasting far less time traveling. He's even considering ducking out of town for a much-needed vacation. Do you think Remote Desktop could improve your quality of life? If so, let's go over what you need to set it up and how to go about implementing it.

Making the Connection
In order to take advantage of Remote Desktop, you need to be running Windows XP Professional on the system you need to access. This is called the host. In my scenario, the host is Frank's office computer at the limo company. Unfortunately, the host capabilities of Remote Desktop are not available for Windows XP Home Edition or Media Center users. In order to be a host you must be running Windows XP Professional.

In order to set up Remote Desktop on a Windows XP Professional system you must be logged in as an administrator or a member of the Administrators group.

  1. To begin, go to the Control Panel and click on the System icon.
  2. Move to the Remote tab and select the Allow users to connect remotely to this computer check box.

As long as you have administrator rights, your user account will automatically have access to the Remote Users Group. If you want to add remote access to a different user account, you'll need to add them manually. To do this, just follow these steps:

  1. In the Remote Desktop area, click Select Remote Users.
  2. On the Remote Desktop Users dialog box, click Add.
  3. Now type in the name of the user account you want added and click the Check Names button.
  4. When the name is located, click OK. The name now appears in the list of users on the Remote Desktop Users dialog box.
  5. Click OK, and then OK again to finish.

Note: In order for a user account to work with Remote Desktop it must have a password associated to it. Be sure to use a strong one that uses a combination of numbers, letters and, if possible, even characters. Example: PaSSw0rd#1.

With the host now successfully configured, it's time to move on to the client PC. The client PC is the one that will be connecting to the host. You'll need to have the Remote Desktop Connection client software installed on it. In my scenario this would be either Frank's home system or the PC located at one of his other two companies. Fortunately, unlike the host system, the client computer can actually be running an operating system other then Windows XP Professional. This includes the aforementioned Windows XP Home and Media Center, Windows 9x, Windows Me and Windows 2000.

The two easiest ways to get the client software is to either download it or get it off any Windows XP CD. Just insert the disc into your PC and let the autorun program start; then select the Perform Additional Tasks option. Choose the option to install the Remote Desktop Connection and then just follow the directions that appear on your screen.

You'll also need an Internet connection — preferably a broadband connection, but I've used a hotel room dial-up connection at 56Kbps more than once, and it's quite useable. With a 56k dial-up connection, you'll notice some slight delay as you wait for characters you've typed to show up, but it's certainly not onerous. With a broadband connection, the performance is practically real time.

Finally, in order for Remote Desktop to establish a connection with the host machine over the Internet, you'll need to open up TCP port 3389 on host PC's network firewall. Just map that port to the internal IPaddress of the host PC. Typically this will be something along the lines of 192.168.0.x. In order to establish the connection to the host PC, you'll also need to know the global IP address of your WAN. You should be able to find this under your routers Status section.

In a small business, like Frank's, this is easily accomplished. In larger companies though, this might prove more difficult. However, if your company runs a Virtual Private Network (VPN), then you wouldn't need to worry about this step because the VPN would be providing your remote client with access to the internal network of the host PC. In that case, all you'll need to know is the internal IP address of the host system; the aforementioned 192.168.0.x address. Just remember, if you can ping the host machine, you should be able to make a Remote Desktop connection.

Note: If your client and host systems are using software firewalls, you'll need to open TCP port 3389 on those as well.

Now with all the preliminaries out of the way, let's try establishing a remote connection. To do this we need to launch the Remote Desktop Connection. Do this by clicking Start, All Programs, Accessories, and Communications and select Remote Desktop Connection.

  1. In the Remote Desktop dialog box Select Options.
  2. Under the Experience tab select the speed of your Internet connection; Modem, Broadband or LAN.
  3. If you'd like to have the ability not only to see your files, but to transfer them to your client computer, as well, you'll need to configure Remote Desktop to do this. If not, proceed directly to step four.

    1. Select the Local Resources tab.
    2. Under the Local devices sections, click Disk drives and then Connect. You might see a Remote Desktop Connection Security Warning, which states that connecting to the remote computer might be potentially unsafe.
    3. Just click OK.

  4. Under the General tab enter the IP address of the host computer.
  5. Enter the authorized user's username and password.
  6. Finally, click Connect.

If you set up everything correctly, you should see the desktop of your host computer within a few seconds. Once connected to the host machine in the office, that computer is locked, so nobody can use it or watch it to see what you're working on. The Remote Desktop traffic is also encrypted using a 128-bit encryption key, so it's very secure.

Windows XP Professional and Remote desktop technology has the ability to help make our lives easier, break the chains holding us to our desks and should allow telecommuting to become a reality for more of us in the near future. I hope you find Remote Desktop as helpful as Frank did. Best of luck!

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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