Hooking Up Remotely
Easy Project Collaboration with
It's 7 a.m., you're at the job site with your laptop ready
to start the pre-construction meeting, but — oops
— the specs you need are on your computer at home. Or
you're all settled in at your home office on Sunday ready to
crank out that big estimate for tomorrow's sales meeting, but
the current price book and CAD files are back at the office.
If you had been thinking ahead, you'd fire up your Internet
connection, start your remote-control software, connect to your
office PC, and go to work just as if you were sitting in front
of it. Remote-access/remote-control software lets you run
applications, transfer files, and pretty much do anything you
could do if you were at the office, except put a disk in your
CD drive. Here are some choices to get you hooked up.
Commercial Remote Software
There are a dozen or more remote-control packages available.
Some, like Symantec's pcAnywhere
(www.symantec.com/pcanywhere, $190) or
Netopia's Timbuktu (www.netopia.com, for Macs or PCs, $90 and
up), have been around for years and work great, but require a
little elbow grease to get set up (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Commercial
remote-control packages like pcAnywhere and Timbuktu (shown)
offer advanced connection options, excellent file-transfer
utilities, and extra features such as the ability to "chat"
with a user on the other end.
The advantage of one of these packages over the free or cheap
solutions I'll describe below is flexibility and features. For
example, pcAnywhere lets you reboot the computer you're
connected to and log back on automatically when it comes back
online. Commercial packages also offer more connection options,
such as direct-dial modem-to-modem or serial cable, in addition
to typical Internet connections. And you get advanced
file-management capabilities, such as the ability to transfer
files in the background. If you're the administrator for your
office network and want to work from home, one of these
heavy-duty packages might be for you.
Windows XP Remote Desktop
If your office computer is running Windows XP Pro, you already
have a free remote-control solution called Remote Desktop. If
you're wondering why everyone on your block isn't using it,
it's because making it work can be a real hassle, especially if
the computer you're trying to connect to is behind a broadband
router or firewall (as it should be). Connecting with Remote
Desktop in those circumstances requires knowledge of "IP
addressing," VPNs (virtual private networks), opening and
closing "TCP ports," and "packet forwarding" — plus
the patience of Job. Once you get it installed and running,
however, you'll be able to cut and paste files between the host
and remote machine, run applications, and even play music files
over the connection without spending a dime. But if all that
configuration sounds like more trouble than it's worth, proceed
directly to the "GoToMyPC" section, below.
A favorite of system administrators who need to work on lots
of computers but are too lazy to get out of their chairs and
too cheap to buy pcAnywhere is RealVNC
(www.realvnc.org). This free, "open source"
application installs a "server" component on your office
computer and a "viewer" component on your laptop or home office
PC. RealVNC has no file-transfer capability on its own, but
once you're connected, you can email yourself files or use a
separate FTP (file transfer protocol) application. Unlike
Remote Desktop, the VNC viewer is available for just about any
platform — you can control your office PC from your
home OSX Mac if you want! But just as for Remote Desktop,
you'll need to know how to get under the hood of your office
router and firewall to make it work (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Remote
Desktop and RealVNC (shown) are free, but you'll need a degree
in geek to hook them up around your firewall or broadband
This is a web-based service that will set you back $20 per
month, but the no-hassle convenience is well worth the price,
especially if you're between sales calls and job sites. Like
the others, GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com) installs a server
component on your "host" computer that runs in the background,
waiting for your connection. But unlike the others, it uses a
web browser to connect, so there's no configuration at all on
the "remote" computer. This means you don't even need to work
from your own computer: Any computer with Internet access will
do (Figure 3).
Figure 3. GoToMyPC uses
a simple web-based interface (top) to connect to your host PC,
no matter what's between the two of you. Note the built-in
file-transfer utility (bottom).
If you've been on after-hours sales or design calls without a
laptop, you'll understand how useful this feature is. If
necessary, you can turn your client's family room computer
— or the public one at the coffee shop — into
your private office. All you do is log on to the GoToMyPC.com
website and type in your password. It's the next best thing to
being there. Firewalls, routers, dial-up connections —
nothing seems to stop GoToMyPC from reliably making a
Unless you're using one of the commercial packages that lets
you directly dial-in to your host computer with a modem and
phone line, you're going to need an Internet connection to
connect remotely. This is no problem from your home office, but
how do you get online when you're running around a job site or
sitting in your truck? One solution is to set up your laptop or
tablet PC with an 802.11 wireless card (WiFi) and a cellular
wireless card. If you're near a WiFi access point, you can hop
on there; if not, you can dial up with your cellular
The problem with this approach is the cost of the cellular
modem card — still around $80 per month in most parts
of the country, plus airtime. A cheaper alternative that works
nearly as well is to use your actual cell phone with a "data
connection cable" or even a "bluetooth" wireless link to drive
your laptop online. The connection software and cable usually
run under $60, and adding basic data service to your cellular
account costs less than $10. The only downside to this approach
is you can't talk on the cell phone and get online at the same
Easy Project Collaboration
How much would you pay for a secure, password-protected
website — customized for your company — where
you can share and track project documents, photos, discussion
threads, announcements, and other aspects of your projects with
customers, subs, and whomever else you decide to let in?
What if you could build this site in just a few minutes by
yourself, working only from a web browser or your word
processor — no programming required?
Just a few years ago, large homebuilders were spending six
figures to have this kind of site developed for them. Now,
starting for around $20 a month, you can set up a hosted
Microsoft SharePoint site that can take care of just about all
of your basic document-management and collaboration needs.
Because SharePoint is based on Microsoft technology, it works
seamlessly with Word, Excel, and Outlook. If you're using
Office 2003, it will integrate right down to your desktop,
letting you create and save SharePoint-destined documents
directly in your office applications.
Wooden Block Approach
When you were a toddler, you probably had one of those sets of
colored wooden blocks that all fit together in a little wagon.
You could put your blocks in there a hundred different ways,
and they would all still fit. That's the idea behind SharePoint
services. You drag "blocks" called Web Parts into a framework
to make each page display the items you want to show your users
(see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Web Parts are
the premade building blocks of a SharePoint site. To add them,
you just drag and drop.
The basic layout is all done for you, but you decide which
block goes where on the screen. Microsoft provides many stock
layouts and color themes to get you started: a photo gallery, a
document library, a threaded discussion board, and contact
lists, for example (Figure 2). From there, you can tweak to
suit your needs. You can buy additional web parts from
third-party vendors, or, with some programming, create your
Figure 2. A stock
layout for a photo gallery makes it easy to set up this
In addition to a home page for each project, you can create
dedicated "workspaces" for specific tasks or activities. Like
site templates, workspaces are preloaded with the right web
parts for specialized activities. For example, there is a
workspace template designed to accommodate online meetings and
another for collaborating on documents (Figure 3). There's even
a "social meeting" template that could be used for organizing
company picnics and the like. Like everything else in
SharePoint, if you don't like the stock workspaces, you can
customize them or create your own.
Figure 3. Dedicated
"workspaces" allow you to share documents with the users you
Desktop Document Sharing
You determine what your users will see and what they can
access when they visit your SharePoint site. Your customers
could have access to all of their contract documents and
product literature, whereas subcontractors might only be given
access to their scopes of work and drawings for their
particular trades. At the same time, everyone visiting the site
would be able to access general information and your company
You can use a SharePoint site to collaborate on nearly any
kind of file, but the system really shines when you're using
Office 2003. For example, the "shared workspace" task pane in
Word lets you manipulate your SharePoint site as easily as if
it were on your own hard drive. Other Office 2003 applications
have similar integration. For instance, a "task" set in
SharePoint can be pushed automatically into your Outlook
Most everything you need to do to maintain a SharePoint site
can be done right from a web browser, by logging on as the
administrator. But many chores, like uploading multiple images
or fine-tuning your overall templates or color themes, are much
easier and faster if you have FrontPage 2003, Microsoft's web
authoring tool, which is available separately, or included in
some versions of Office 2003.
SharePoint services are available a couple of different ways.
The least expensive and easiest way to get started is with a
hosted account. The best-value host I've found to date is
1&1 hosting (www.1and1.com), which offers SharePoint
with 50 users and 500MB of storage space for $19.95 a month.
There are more SharePoint hosts popping every day, so shop
around (search on "SharePoint hosting"). If you're a larger
company with your own Windows server, you can also host your
own SharePoint sites. SharePoint is included as part of Windows
Small Business Server 2003. Be aware that if you want to host
it yourself, you'll need an always-on broadband Internet
connection, a business-class hosting account, and some
knowledge of Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS). For
most small companies, going the hosted route will be much
It always takes Microsoft a few versions of anything to work
all the bugs out, and since this is the second release of
SharePoint, there are a handful of annoyances I hope will be
cleaned up over time.
For example, currently there's no way to globally set "alerts"
for users. Everyone invited to join the site has to remember to
set their own, which can be unreliable, or an administrator has
to log on to each account individually to set alerts for them,
which is tedious. Another minor flaw is that users are teased
onscreen by web parts and resources they may not have
permission to actually use, and they won't know they don't
until they are greeted with an unfriendly "access denied" error
message. It would be nicer if those items were grayed out in
the interface, or simply didn't appear on a user's page at all,
unless they had permission to use them.
But all things considered, these are small complaints. With
SharePoint, you get a heck of a lot for not very much money.
Microsoft has plugged into the next evolution of personal
computing: collaboration that blurs the line between your
desktop and the Internet. Plus, it's easy to use right out of
the box — but as flexible as you need it to be.Joe Stoddard is a
contributing editor toJLCand a
technology consultant to the building industry. You can reach
him at www.mountainconsulting.com.