Saturday, May 21, 2011

Accessing your home data from anywhere... (even with you iPhone)

It's incredible convenient to be able to access the data on your home network whenever and wherever you want. This has been possible using a range of software and hardware tools that deploy Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). However, these have been pretty complex to implement, has required expensive routers and/or a PC that is running VPN software and that is turned on all the time. (Not particularly environmentally friendly)

Now it is relatively easy to do this, providing access from your iOS device or PC to any storage (NAS) on your home network and any computers that are running on it. What has changed is the automation in PC/Mac/iOS devices that vastly simplify VPN configuration. And importatly for iOS devices (iPhe/iPad), there are now apps that allow you to access the data on your network once you have established the VPN. It's not quite at the point of "once click, set and forget", but it is now both feasible and affordable. The solution involves
  1. Buying a cheap but versatile VPN capable router (not many fall into this category) and setting it up to provide a PPTP (Point to point tunnelling protocol) VPN server that is compatible with both PC's Mac's and iOS devices.
  2. Set up a VPN client compatible with your router using the PC/Mac/iOS in-built VPN wizards 
  3. Set up links to your data sources for your remote laptop / PC / iOS device
The following provides one further level of detail for the PC / iOS world and assumes you have some permanently powered NAS on you home network.

The VPN gateway in your home

After considerable research I found the D-Link DIR-130 is the cheapest router that will create a VPN server compatible with PC's and iOS devices. (~$140). It has an inbuilt VPN setup wizard which will allow you to set up appropriate user names and passwords.

Your broadband provider probably does not assign you a permanent IP address to your home, so you need a way for your external devices to "find" your home. You do this using a "Dynamic DNS service" that your router talks to in order maintain a mapping between a permanent domain name (that you specify and is used as the home address in your external device) and your actual broadband router. D-link provide this free.

Your remote device VPN setup

Mac's, PC's and iOS devices all have VPN setup wizards. Set up for a PPTP VPN and put in the credentials you used with the router and the VPN part should work fine. Remember, to test this, you must be on a network other than your home network. You can use your iPhone as a tether for your laptop by turning off its WiFi connection and connecting to it with your laptop via bluetooth or USB (with it's "Hotspot" option turned on of course!). The laptop will then be connected through the phone system and be able to test "external" access to your router.

Accessing data

While the VPN provides a secure "tunnel" to your home network, your access to data will be enabled / limited just as it is on the home network. Computers / drives will still have their active access permissions. So folders may be public or password protected as you set them up on the internal network. Computers of course have to be running in order to access their data; and if you want to access the "private" data on these machines you will need to have the proper login credentials and to have shared the appropriate drives. This is of course yet another reason to have NAS on your home system; they can run all the time with little power...

From the iPhone or iPad you will need some additional software in order to access home network data. NetPortal (iPhone) and FileBrowser (iPad) are cheap apps that let you access network drives on any accessible network (i.e. via VPN when you are remote, or directly when at home). You can set up bookmarks to quickly access common locations.

With all this in place, it is simple to access any working documents - including multimedia - from any location. You can also back up stuff you are working on remotely to your home systems for security. Set up does take some work - but once done requires no further effort for instant access to all your data.

That said, it is worth thinking about the security of your remote devices and what data is secured with additional credentials / encryption at home or on the road. You can have VPN's and data locations open automatically - but if you do, then you better have a secure password and a sensible lock timeout on your remote devices. I do have a lock on my iPhone and my laptop is tightly secured and fully encrypted. I require manual password entry for more sensitive areas - and never have unencrypted client or sensitive personal information anywhere... Never take data security for granted....

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