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Connecting to Another Computer with Remote Desktop (part 1) - Configuring Your Network for Remote Desktop Connections

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Sharing computer resources over a network, when properly configured, gives you access to all the files you might need, wherever they're stored. But sometimes even that is not enough. You might need to run a program that is installed only on another computer, or you might need to configure and manage another computer's files and settings in ways that can be done only by working at that computer. Actually, there is another way: Remote Desktop. Remote Desktop enables you to operate a computer by remote control, over a local network or over the internet.

When you use a Remote Desktop connection, you're able to operate that computer as if you were sitting right in front of it. You have access to all of the other computer's files, applications, and network resources. You can connect to your work PC from your home office and run a query on a corporate database using an application that isn't available at home. If you work all night to finish an important presentation and forget to bring it to the office, you can connect to your home computer from your office network and use Remote Desktop to retrieve the file and make your deadline. And unlike earlier versions of Remote Desktop, the version in Windows 7 can play videos and other media, and its bidirectional audio support makes it possible to use the remote computer for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony applications and speech recognition.

On a home or small business network, you can use Remote Desktop as a remote management console. From your main desktop, you can connect to any computer on your network and install updates, change system settings, or perform other routine maintenance tasks without having to leave the comfort of your couch or cubicle.

With Remote Desktop, applications run on the remote computer; your computer is effectively used as a dumb terminal. You can use a low-powered computer—an inexpensive netbook or even an old clunker—and enjoy the speed and power of the remote computer. Remote Desktop connections are encrypted, so your information is secure, even if you're making a connection over the internet.

The basic requirements for using Remote Desktop are pretty simple: you need two computers that are connected via a local area network, the internet, or a dial-up connection.


The computer that you want to control—the one at the remote location—is called the remote computer. The computer you want to use to control the remote computer is called the client computer.

These are the requirements for the two computers:

  • Remote computer You need a computer running Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate. (Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, and Home Premium editions do not include the software required for hosting Remote Desktop sessions.) The remote computer can also use Windows Vista (Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions), Windows XP Professional (or Windows XP Media Center or Tablet PC editions), Windows Home Server, Windows Server 2008, or Windows Server 2003. This computer must have a connection to a local area network or to the internet. If you're going to connect to this computer over the internet, its internet connection must have a known, public IP address. (For ways around this last requirement, see Section 18.4.1 on Section 18.4.1.)


    It is possible to set up an incoming Remote Desktop connection to use a dial-up modem that's configured to answer incoming calls automatically. For reasons of practicality, we don't recommend this configuration, nor do we cover it in this book.

  • Client computer You can access Remote Desktop from a computer running any version of Windows. In Windows 7, you use the Remote Desktop Connection program (Mstsc.exe), which is included in all editions. Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows XP SP3 also include the most recent Remote Desktop Connection, version 6.1. For other operating systems, download the most recent version from one of these sources:

    • For Windows XP SP2, download Remote Desktop Connection version 6.1 from w7io.com/1801.

    • For older versions of Windows, including Windows 95/98/Me, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, and Windows 2003 Server, version 5.1 of the Remote Desktop client software can be downloaded from w7io.com/1803.

    • Mac clients can download a compatible version of the client software from Microsoft's Mactopia site, at w7io.com/1802.

    • An open-source Linux client is available from w7io.com/1804.

Alternatives to Remote Desktop

Remote Desktop is an elegant and well-engineered solution to a common problem, but it's not your only option when you need to connect to another PC. If you're looking for alternatives, especially for a system running Windows 7 Starter or Home Premium edition, consider a third-party program that offers similar features, or use one of several browser-based services.

Among commercial third-party programs, Laplink Gold has a stellar reputation and a long history. Remote access is only one of its many features, which also include PC-to-PC file transfer and synchronization. For more information, visit w7io.com/1805.

An excellent free alternative is UltraVNC (uvnc.com), which is one of many variants of the Virtual Network Computing (VNC) software first developed by Olivetti and Oracle Research Labs and released as open source in 2002. RealVNC (realvnc.com) uses the same code base and offers a version that is free for personal use.

Browser-based alternatives typically work on a subscription model. You create an account with an online service (paid or free) and run a service on the PC to which you want to enable remote access. You can then connect to that PC over the internet by opening a web browser, going to the service's home page, and logging in. To see if this option is right for you, look at GoToMyPC (gotomypc.com), LogMeIn (logmein.com), or Laplink Everywhere (w7io.com/1806).

1. Configuring Your Network for Remote Desktop Connections

When you enable Remote Desktop on Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate, the remote computer listens for incoming connections on port 3389. Enabling Remote Desktop also creates an exception in Windows Firewall that allows authenticated traffic on this port.

That makes Remote Desktop easy to use over a local network where no third-party security software is installed. But it doesn't solve the many problems you face when trying to connect to Remote Desktop over the internet. To connect through the internet, you must be able to reach the remote computer using a known public IP address, and you have to get through a router and past any security software in between the two computers. If you're sitting in a hotel room or an airport, connecting to Remote Desktop poses several challenges imposed by firewalls, routers, and IP addresses. The solutions to these issues depend on your specific hardware configuration, but we can offer the following general advice.

1.1. Configuring a Router for Remote Desktop

If the remote computer is connected to the internet through a router, you need to accomplish two tasks. First, you have to ascertain the router's public IP address. Then you have to configure the router to forward Remote Desktop Protocol traffic it receives on port 3389 to the remote computer.

To find the router's IP address, open its browser-based administration interface and find the status screen. The public IP address is typically labeled as the WAN (wide area network) address; don't use the local area network (LAN) address, which is the private IP address used to forward traffic to computers on your local network.

To make sure Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) traffic reaches your remote PC, look for a "port forwarding" page in the same router administration interface (it's often buried within an advanced configuration section). You'll need to specify the local (private) IP address of the remote computer and tell the router that you want all traffic on port 3389 to be forwarded to that PC instead of being discarded. Figure 1 shows this configuration on a D-Link router for a remote computer with an IP address of

Figure 1. Every router has a different configuration interface, but the basic concepts of port forwarding are similar to the one shown here, which will forward traffic on port 3389 to a local PC with the specified private IP address.

Inside Out: Use dynamic DNS to avoid IP address confusion

Using a bare IP address for Remote Desktop connections is easy but potentially risky. If you forget the public IP address assigned to your computer, you'll be unable to make a connection. Worse, if your ISP decides to change your IP address, you'll be stymied until you discover the new address, which is a challenge if you're away from home. The solution is to use a dynamic DNS service, such as those offered by Dynamic Network Services (dyndns.com) and TZO (fzo.com). (A web search for "dynamic DNS service" will turn up many more options.) Such services map the public IP address on your router to a domain name that doesn't change. Dynamic DNS services typically rely on software installed on your remote computer, which notifies the service provider's domain name servers if your IP address changes. Because the domain name server correlates your domain name with its current IP address, you (or anyone you designate) can always find your computer by using your registered domain name instead of a numeric IP address.

1.2. Using a Windows Server as a Remote Desktop Gateway

The mechanics of configuring a home or small office network for remote access can be daunting, and port forwarding suffers from the limitation that it allows remote access to one and only one PC on your local network. For a simpler (but certainly not free) solution to these problems, consider adding a Windows server to your network.

Windows Home Server is designed for use on home and very small office networks. One of its key features is an easy remote access interface. When you enable remote access on the server, you can connect to that server over the internet and browse shared folders. If you've enabled Remote Desktop on any computers that are connected to the Windows Home Server, you can connect to those computers through the server's Remote Access interface.

The Windows Home Server option has other advantages as well, including a configuration tool that automates port forwarding for most UPnP-capable routers and sets up dynamic DNS. Also of note is that the remote desktop appears within a browser window rather than in a separate Remote Desktop Connection window. This means you don't need to install software on the client computer; displaying the remote desktop requires an ActiveX control, which means that remote access works only with Internet Explorer running under Windows on the client computer.

For larger or more sophisticated networks, you can use a Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services Gateway. When users connect to a server that has been configured to use this service, they can connect to any computer on the network that has Remote Desktop enabled, using a web-based interface. A network administrator can also designate individual programs that can be run in Remote Desktop sessions. When you connect to one of these RemoteApp programs, it runs in a window on your desktop that looks just like any other program being run from a local source; the only clue that it's running from another computer is the word remote in parentheses after the program's name in Windows Task Manager.


For more information about using a Terminal Services Gateway, see Windows Server 2008 Inside Out by William R. Stanek (Microsoft Press, 2008).

Other -----------------
- Finding and Using Shared Resources on a Windows Network
- Sharing Resources with Older Windows Versions (part 4) - Sharing a Printer & Setting Server Properties
- Sharing Resources with Older Windows Versions (part 3) - Setting Advanced Sharing Properties
- Sharing Resources with Older Windows Versions (part 2) - Sharing Files with Public Folders & Sharing Files and Folders from Any Folder
- Sharing Resources with Older Windows Versions (part 1) - Configuring Your Network for Sharing
- Sharing Files, Digital Media, and Printers in a Homegroup (part 2)
- Sharing Files, Digital Media, and Printers in a Homegroup (part 1) - Deciding What to Share—And What Not to Share
- Using HomeGroup to Connect Your Computers at Home
- Setting Up a Wireless Network (part 3) - Setting Up an Ad Hoc Network
- Setting Up a Wireless Network (part 2) - Connecting to a Wireless Network
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