The Definition of Remote Access for Computer Networks

Control a computer from a distance with remote access tools

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In computer networking, remote access technology allows a user to log in to a system as an authorized user without being physically present at its keyboard. Remote access is commonly used on corporate computer networks but can also be used on home networks.

Remote Desktop

The most sophisticated form of remote access enables users on one computer to see and interact with the actual desktop user interface of another computer. Setting up remote desktop support involves configuring software on both the host (the local computer controlling the connection) and client/target (the remote computer being accessed). When connected, this software opens a window on the host computer containing a view of the client's desktop.

Depending on how two programs work, and the screen resolutions on both screens, the client computer might be able to maximize the program window to take up the entire screen. This is helpful because it makes it seem like the remote computer is right there in the same room, a perfect situation for anyone servicing a remote computer, accessing files, etc.

Current versions of Microsoft Windows include the Remote Desktop software but it's only available on computers running Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate versions of the operating system. For Macs, the Apple Remote Desktop software package is designed for business networks and sold separately. For Linux, various remote desktop software programs exist.

There are, however, many third-party remote access programs that you can install and use in place of the built-in remote desktop tools. Many of them work perfectly well on Windows, macOS, and Linux, and can even be used across those platforms (i.e. a Windows host can control a Linux client).

Many remote desktop solutions are based on Virtual Network Computing technology. Software packages based on VNC work across multiple operating systems. The speed of VNC and any other remote desktop software varies, sometimes performing as effectively the same as the local computer but other times exhibiting sluggish responsiveness due to network latency.

Remote Access to Files

Basic remote network access allows files to be read from and written to the client computer, even without remote desktop capability in place, though most remote desktop programs support both. Virtual Private Network technology provides remote login and file access functionality across wide area networks.

A VPN requires client software be present on host systems and VPN server technology installed on the target computer. As an alternative to VPNs, client/server software based on the secure shell SSH protocol can be also be used for remote file access. SSH provides a command line interface to the target system.

File sharing within a home or other local area network is generally not considered to be a remote access environment even though it's still technically remotely accessing the other device.

Is Remote Desktop Safe?

Programs that can remotely connect to your computer are usually safe, but like all things, there are definitely methods to use them maliciously. Some misuses of remote desktop tools might be to steal your information, delete files from your computer, install other programs without your knowledge, etc.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make sure a remote desktop program doesn't have access to your computer. The obvious is to uninstall remote desktop programs you're no longer using. It can be tempting to keep them on your computer, but if you've given the remote software full access to your system, it's best to remove the program if you won't be using it for a while—you can always reinstall it later.

If you'd rather not completely remove the remote desktop program, you can turn it off. It's easy to disable Remote Desktop in Windows, and similar tools on macOS and Linux can be shut down, too.

Another great defense against malware, whether delivered over remote desktop programs or other ways, is to have an antivirus program installed. There are plenty of free AV programs for Macs, Windows, and other operating systems.