Q: I want to be able to access my office computer from my house on the weekends and have been told that I need to setup a VPN. What is it and how do I do it? -Jeff

A: The Internet has made it very easy to remotely access computers from just about anywhere in the world, but how you choose to do it depends mostly on what you are trying to do.

I always like pursuing the simplest solutions before getting involved in complicated technical schemes such as VPNs.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it is a way to securely connect a remote computer to a host network using the Internet. This remote computer is essentially using the Internet as a long cable to connect to the office network using sophisticated software to keep it secure.

VPNs are used by large companies to allow telecommuters to work from home or road warriors to connect from hotel rooms as if they were in the building.

VPNs are generally best used by organizations that have a strong technical staff to maintain and troubleshoot the many possible issues that come up and cause the system not to work (we refer to VPNs as Very Painful Networks).

When they work, they are wonderful, but when they don’t, the average user ends up staring at a bunch of error codes with no idea what to do to resolve the problem. Oftentimes, the problem has nothing to do with the remote user’s computer and that is when someone that is familiar with all of the parts of the VPN must troubleshoot the problem.

VPN software can also wreak havoc with a computer that is trying to be part of a home network and a company network at the same time.

Your description of your needs sounds like it is better suited for “remote control” instead of “remote access.” The difference is that in a remote control scenario, you are simply taking over a computer that exists on the internal network as if you were sitting at that desk.

This will work fine if you are accessing your own computer at the office from your computer at your home because no one would be using it at the time you wanted to connect.

If you used this method to connect to your bookkeeper’s computer during business hours, your bookkeeper would have to stop using the computer while you were remotely controlling it, so make sure you understand the logistics involved for remote control.

A simple and free remote control program that I like to use is called LogMeIn.

The way this program works is that you install a “host” version on your office computer and use its Web interface from your home computer. Once you set up your office computer with the program and create a username and password, you simply tell your home computer to connect to the office computer through its site and a window opens up that looks exactly like your office computer (because it is)!

The beauty of this system is that any time you are near any Internet connected computer (not just your home computer), you can log into its site and access your office computer.

The biggest limitations in the free version are that you cannot transfer files through the system or print to a remote printer (the Pro version supports both of these features and costs $12.95 per month per PC with various volume discount options).

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services
Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show
Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers

[tags]ken colburn, data doctors, Remote PC, Access Inbox, VPN, Virtual Private Network, LogMeIn[/tags]