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Remote access best practices emphasize security, ease of use

COVID-19 has forced companies to determine the best way to keep remote employees supported. Not sure which way to proceed? Consider these remote access best practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled many employees to work from home, forcing companies to deploy new software and procedures designed to permit remote access to corporate data and applications. IT service desk staff have also seen their roles change. For these employees, it's not just connecting to data and apps. They must also access end users' devices to deliver troubleshooting and support services.

That's where remote access comes in. In most cases, remote access software is used to capture the at-home user's desktop, where it is then transported across the internet and mirrored on the IT support staffer's desktop. The software lets IT support staff take control of keyboard and mouse inputs to configure or troubleshoot both the remote OS and any applications or data residing on the end user's device.

In this article, we're going to discuss some remote access best practices and what to look for in a remote access tool. We'll also examine three distinct categories of tools that enterprises should consider as they assess their future remote support strategies.

What to look for in a remote access tool

First and foremost, remote access tools must be easy to use on both sides of the connection. This includes any software installation and the initial setup modifications needed to get a secure connection up and running. If the remote access software has not been deployed on users' devices ahead of time, employees may be required to perform the initial installations themselves. Thus, simplicity of setup is vital.

Next, be aware that some remote access tools can't perform certain tasks on remote devices. This includes processes such as remote reboots, wake on LAN, and remote update or install of the OS or applications. These tasks often require special permissions from the OS -- some of which are not granted through certain remote access tools. Thus, if your team is required to perform these functions, make sure the tool you choose can perform these essential IT support tasks.

Perhaps most importantly, understand that remote access tools vary widely in cost and functionality.

Remote access security and compliance capabilities are other important considerations in remote access best practices. Check to make sure such features as multifactor authentication, session encryption and file access protection are available to ensure proper security levels.

Additionally, some remote access products tout security certifications, such as ISO 9001, ISO 27001 and VB100, to show their products have met or surpassed a certain level of security quality. Lastly, if your enterprise must adhere to certain compliance guidelines, such as Payment Card Industry, GDPR or HIPAA, it may be necessary to modify the remote access tool to ensure it has the appropriate level of security to support those standards. Many vendors offer security and compliance guides and how-to documents to help customers meet these regulation requirements.

Perhaps most importantly, understand that remote access tools vary widely in cost and functionality. In some cases, free tools may be used, but be aware they may not provide the necessary remote access you require. You may also have existing software that can potentially be repurposed for remote IT support. A wide range of purpose-built remote access tools exist, obtained either through monthly or annual licensing or as a one-time purchase.

Categories of remote access tools

Remote access tools come in three different versions. First are those tools integrated directly into most enterprise-grade desktop OSes. These include Windows Remote Desktop Protocol, Apple Remote Desktop and various Linux versions, like Ubuntu or KDE remote desktop. For Linux-based OSes, most troubleshooting and support can be done via command-line interface. Thus, Secure Shell can also be considered a remote access tool for these types of systems.

The advantage of built-in tools is no additional software is required. The downside is setup can be a challenge. Additionally, if a device needs to be remotely accessed outside the corporate LAN -- which is often the case -- it requires a remote access VPN connection.

Another option is using team meeting tools, such as Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Nontechnical employees are likely well versed in these apps, and unlike built-in tools, meeting tools don't require the use of a VPN connection when used outside the corporate LAN. The downside is these tools are often the most expensive choice compared to other remote access options. Unless your organization already uses these types of tools for online meetings, they may not be the most cost-effective choice.

The third option to consider is purpose-built third-party tools. These usually are the most flexible and offer a solid set of remote features, including the ability to perform virtually any task remotely -- with or without local assistance. Additionally, these tools support a wider variety of devices, including desktops, smart devices and even some IoT devices. Products to consider include ConnectWise Control, TeamViewer and Zoho Assist. While these tools can be costly, they're often less expensive than online meeting alternatives. And they provide more capability and flexibility than built-in tools.

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