The need for a flexible business style is very much part of today’s small business world: entrepreneurs work very odd hours and in very odd places in order to maintain an acceptable balance between personal and professional lives.

Information technologies have drastically changed how productive people can be when away from their office, making in many cases a virtual presence a very close substitute for actual presence on the job. Information age entrepreneurs can literally have their virtual office move wherever they are by leveraging technologies such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), Web-based software applications, online data storage, smartphones, and 3G data networks. In many cases, though, the importance of the physical office as a primary workplace remains substantial. The main office often is where the majority of the work gets done, and where most of the business resources are.

Some very clever and quite inexpensive technologies can help bridge the need for a flexible work life and the importance of being present at the office, allowing us to remotely access the IT infrastructure of our main workplace and consequently most of its business resources, just as if we were there.

There are two primary technologies that allow us to achieve that objective: virtual private networking and remote desktop access.

Virtual private networking

Virtual private networking is capable of using the Internet to provide remote offices or individual users with secure, direct access to their organization's internal local area network (LAN). A virtual private network (VPN) server or gateway connected to the LAN and to the Internet allows for external users to log into the network and access all physical and logical resources, such as shared files, databases, printers or an internal email server.

The VPN server software can be either hosted in an actual computer or built into a dedicated appliance. Microsoft Small Business Server provides VPN capability, but the most popular free VPN server for Windows is OpenVPN.

Most networking device companies offer appliances that provide VPN functionality, although they almost always require proprietary software to be installed on the remote clients, imposing licensing fees per each remote user. Since these devices only support a limited number of concurrent external connections, it is very important to assess prior to purchasing how many concurrent remote users your business expects to have at any given time.

The appliance approach tends to be quite simpler to setup and manage than the server option, although I recommend having a professional IT expert take care of your VPN installation and configuration, due to the general complexity of the technology.

Once the VPN connection is established, the experience is truly seamless, as long as the internet connections are sufficiently fast. Business-grade DSL and cable Internet access are good enough for acceptable performance.

Remote desktop access

Remote desktop access technology allows instead to take full control of an individual Internet connected PC from anywhere. Since the host computer is taken over, the remote client user feels exactly as if it was sitting in front of the host, having access to all its software, files, and resources. A typical application consists in taking control of a desktop located in the main office while using a laptop from home.

Products in this category generally leverage the technology in two different ways: peer-to-peer direct connection or Web-service connection. In the first, case the product is purchased as licensed software and the connection occurs directly from the client to the host. In the second, case the product is purchased as a service and the connection between the computers occurs through a secure web site.

In both cases, software needs to be installed on both computers to make a secure connection possible.

In the first category, the undisputed leader is Norton PCAnywhere by Symantec. The product though has lately been transformed more to be a tool for providing remote IT support than to manage the occasional remote desktop connection, and the price point has gone well up, making it mostly a choice for professional users. The second most popular, and now probably better suited for simple remote desktop control is Laplink's Everywhere.  Other offerings include Anyplace Control and  Access Remote PC.

The second category, Web-based tools, is quickly growing in popularity thanks to its great inherent flexibility and ease of setup and use. The most popular products are: GoToMyPC, Log Me In, PC Now from Webex, and RemotePC. All provide some form of free basic service, but the most comprehensive no cost offering is definitely the one provided by Log Me In.

If already using VPN technology, Windows XP and Vista include a Terminal Services client that performs exactly the same function at no extra cost for computers within the network. MS Small Business Server provides enhanced functionality using the same service, allowing for very simple setup and management of connections. Otherwise TightVNC is a great open source product, even if it has some issues working with Vista.

Enjoy your freedom without changing your work habits. Remote office access technologies are here to stay.

Andrea Peiro is a recognized authority, author, analyst and speaker on high-tech marketing and use of information technology in small and mid-sized businesses. He has been frequently interviewed and featured in such media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Inc. You can reach him at us.andreap@gmail.com.