Remote desktop software is a linchpin for any IT department, so it's no wonder there's a wide range of products on offer to cater for different requirements and environments. And this only has become more integral over time as teleworking and the plethora of mobile devices has taken off. In many cases, an employee's job depends on being able to remotely access data at work, via secure shares, VPNs, or remote desktop software.
But what features do they offer, and are they secure? When it comes to remote management, accessing servers in other offices and locations, or allowing employees to work remotely you want to be sure the connection isn't the weakest link, especially if a VPN isn't an option. And even if a VPN is available, this isn't always the best choice -- for remote employees, the extra overhead can be counter-productive if routing internet access, and more importantly can expose the network to the outside. Remote desktop software can help alleviate this by allowing employees to access the corporate network without necessarily being able to copy data out.
Most all remote desktop will (or should) utilise encryption, but not all products are created equal. Different levels of encryption are available, some may add extra security with two-factor authentication, and others still may route traffic through a central server -- which may or not be a good thing depending how you look at it. Doing so can make it easy to connect machines without opening ports in a firewall, but it means you rely on a third party both for access and trusting your data remains secure.
Feature wise you'll find everything from just basic remote desktop support through to clipboard and file transfer facilities, access to remote devices (like cameras), accelerated 3D support, and mobile clients (iOS, Android et al.) And on top of this there is of course a wide range of paid and free products, including the built-in functionality one can find in Windows, Linux, and MacOS X.
We can't cover them all, but here's our take on some of the more popular and less well-known products on the market. As always, give them a whirl with a trial before you buy and ensure they meet your own strict security policies.
RDP and VNC?
RDP, aka Remote Desktop Protocol, is the Microsoft protocol for remote desktop functionality and is utilised by many remote desktop software suites. Similarly, VNC is the Virtual Networking Computing protocol (also RFB, Remote Framebuffer protocol) that originated on Unix and, for this reason, many Linux-based remote desktop programs utilise it.
Where RDP supports encryption natively, the same is not true for VNC. Typically, many free remote desktop programs on Linux are front-ends to VNC and often also do not provide encryption --- instead, these are frequently used in conjunction with an SSH tunnel to provide security. Commercial VNC-based products however should provide encryption without the need for an SSH tunnel, given their business focus.
That said, protocols are just that -- protocols -- and you will find both Windows and Linux tools that can use both RDP and VNC, making it possible for two machines to connect even if they use different remote desktop server and client software and different operating systems, just as long as the same protocol is used.
Alternatively, some of the tools we looked at here incorporate their own proprietary protocol, and may provide RDP or VNC as options or fall-backs. In these cases, software from the vendor is needed on both sides to honour the proprietary protocol.
In general, performance of RDP and VNC falls behind some of the newer tools with their own protocols, at least when it comes to higher-latency connections over the internet as opposed to a LAN. However, there are various free tools available that use RDP or VNC, and you may find these meet your needs.