Secure Remote Access

The Real Cost of a Free Remote Desktop Solution

Marketers know there is something magic about the word “free.” Compared to “free”, even a very small charge – pennies or a few dollars – is enough to act as a significant deterrent. Moreover, pricing something inexpensively can cause consumers to think the product is not valuable, and perhaps not very good – whereas “free” doesn’t carry that same baggage.

But of course, nothing is truly free. Companies are in business to make money, and if they’re giving something away it’s because they expect to sell more of either that product or something else later. Alternatively, the cost has been worked into another related product, so the fact that a particular element or feature is “free” simply obscures the fact that the cost is covered elsewhere.

And then there are the hidden costs of something that’s free…

Who doesn't love “free” stuff?

A friend once gave me a fish tank. For free! “Cool,” I thought. “A free fish tank. I like fish.” So I went out and bought an air filter, water heater, and pump. Bought a plastic insert that looked like a coral reef, and started buying a few fish. A few hundred dollars later, my “free” fish tank was set up and usable. If someone had offered to sell me the whole package I put together at the outset for the few hundred dollars it ended up costing me, would I have taken it? Probably not – I like fish, but I really wasn't looking to spend a few hundred dollars on them. I got suckered in by that magic word, “free.”

Just how “free” is it….?

Which brings us to remote desktop solutions. Today’s workforce is more mobile and on-the-go than ever before. Employees work from home, from the road, from Starbucks, from wherever they may happen to be. And they do that work on whatever device they happen to have with them, whether it be a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. These portable devices may not have the storage capacity and the horsepower to do the work that employees want and need to do while away from the office. And from a security standpoint, companies generally don’t want their secrets residing on the devices of employees who may lose them. So remote access solutions – software that allows users to access their desktop computers or apps hosted on the company server from a remote location – are very popular.

Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Services (RDS) are built into servers running Windows operating systems. The client, Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection (or simply “Remote Desktop”) is available for free. So why would anyone pay for a remote access solution if Microsoft is giving one away for free?

Using the fish tank analogy, if all I had wanted was a goldfish in a bowl, the free tank would not have cost me much of anything. It would have been adequate for my needs. But if I was going to have a fish tank, I wanted to be sure it came with everything I needed to host my finned friends comfortably, and that meant investing some money.

Microsoft’s free solution is the goldfish bowl of remote desktop solutions. There are several features most organizations would consider indispensable that are not included in the price. A few examples:

  • Security. RDP is not inherently secure once a user is outside the organization’s firewall. Allowing users to access an endpoint on the corporate network over a naked RDP connection is not a good idea – it’s an invitation to getting hacked. Plugging that hole typically requires additional solutions such as a VPN that can be rather tricky and time-consuming to configure, and may not be free to use in a business setting. If you don’t yet have a VPN, make sure that any remote desktop solution you adopt includes a free secure gateway that is quick and straightforward to set up and use. If you do, you’ll want to seek out a solution that integrates easily with your existing VPN.
  • Flexibility. If you’re rolling out remote access to more than two people, you may want to offer different configurations for different users, giving each user or group of users access to a different set of resources. Setting this up with Microsoft’s RDP solution is complicated and cumbersome, meaning it takes time and money (and know-how) to get everything set up. More sophisticated solutions are available that are designed for ease of use & implementation in a real-world corporate environment with a variety of users, and lots of different configurations – and some of them are a lot more affordable than you might expect!
  • User Experience. Microsoft’s free solution calls on the user to configure the connection each and every time they connect. Not only is this extremely inconvenient for any but the most infrequent user, but many users aren’t that technically savvy and will need a lot of hand-holding from the help desk. In fact, IT and helpdesk overhead are a significant “hidden cost” of this “free” solution. A truly user-friendly solution should be 100% client-less, ensuring that there’s nothing to download, install or even configure on the user end. With the latest advances in HTML technology, you may want to opt for a solution that works natively from any modern browser – with no addons, plugins, or hassles for the users.

Whether you’re acquiring a fish tank or a remote desktop solution, make sure you take into account all the features you need, as well as the true life-cycle costs, before deciding to go with a “free” solution. In the long run, “free” is not necessarily the most cost-effective option.

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Mendy Newman

Mendy Newman

VP Product Management | Ericom Software