Being There: 2 Key Technology Tools Make Remote Work Possible

By Frank Sentner, Chief Operating Officer, Work At Home Vintage Employees LLC (WAHVE) 

Just about every week, an independent agency owner or agent asks me some version of this question: “How is remote computing from hundreds or thousands of miles away just as secure as sitting at a computer in the main office?”

Their disbelief is palpable, but there’s no reason for it. It’s true: It’s as secure to connect to the office server from across the country as from across the hallway. 

Secure remote access is practical because of two technologies: virtual private networks (VPNs) and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)

Like many technological advances, virtual connections for remote workers began under another premise. Remote computing started decades ago so branch office computers could connect to central servers in corporate data centers, using data lines leased from telephone companies. But the escalating costs of dedicated telephone circuits and the emergence of the Internet as a low-cost, ubiquitous data communications network changed remote computing beginning in the mid-1990s. 

Security and performance concerns initially stopped many technology professionals from using the Internet as a remote office and user access network solution. But business users began to demand remote Internet access while on the go, so IT departments were obliged to wrestle with the security threats posed by the Internet. The unintended but favorable consequence: The solutions that tamped down on web security concerns, coincidentally, supported remote computing. 

Because of the diminishing cost of Internet connectivity, IT pros turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to replace expensive phone-line-fed secure private wide area networks (WANs). Technically, what happened was that the VPN technology used for many years in private frame-relay networks was altered to support public Internet protocol VPNs. This enabled remote offices or users to access the corporate network securely in the same way as those sitting in the office. 

Let’s look briefly at how VPNs and RDPs make remote access secure and routine: 

1. VPNs require remote users to be “authenticated” (i.e., verified using security tools). Additionally, VPNs routinely secure corporate data behind firewalls and encrypt data. The technical aspects aren’t that interesting other than to tech geeks like me. But the business result is relevant: All the functionality available to local users of a corporate network can be made available (or withheld) from those accessing the central system remotely through a VPN. 

That means routine office capabilities such as file sharing; access to printers and scanners; password-protected access to databases; Intranets and other websites; and logons to agency management systems can be accomplished remotely just as readily as they can be in the office where a server and tech manager are housed. 

2. RDP is shorthand for “Remote Desktop Protocol,” a proprietary remote access technology developed by Microsoft. The server or workstation in the agency and the client laptop or workstation at home require RDP software in order to make the connection. 

The current server version of Microsoft’s software is dubbed Remote Desktop Services, formerly Terminal Services. Its capabilities are included in the operating system of every workstation sold since Windows XP Professional first came out, and one user license is bundled with the operating system if the remote computer access will be connected to a workstation. If the remote computer access will be connected to a Windows 2003 or 2008 server to support more than one user simultaneously, there is a per-user license fee for Remote Desktop Services. 

Remote access also requires that the laptop or workstation at home utilize client software called Remote Desktop Connection. RDC provides a graphical interface to connect the remote laptop or workstation to the agency network natively or through a VPN. Translation: A remote user sees an icon on his or her desktop or laptop computer, clicks it, and now has a screen to log in fully and securely to the company’s computer environment. 

What’s needed on the server and in the office to make this happen? The network must have an open TCP (transmission control protocol) port and either have a workstation within the corporate network or a desktop services server with virtual desktops for the RDC user to operate remotely. These need some initial setup work but typically add little cost to an existing system. 

It’s RDP that gives users access to shared files and allows them to use local and network printers and devices. To get techy, one security requirement of RDP sessions is 128-bit encryption using an RC4 encryption algorithm and support for transport layer security (TLS) 1.0 on both the client and the server. Again, for the non-geeks out there, these tools already exist in many environments. 

In short, RDP and VPN provide all the functionality and security needed to fully support remote workers as if they were working in the main office. It’s just like being there. 

Next week: How insurance agencies and brokers are using these connection tools to get work done despite not being in the office.


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