Remote Access Shenannegans

A while back, I wrote about using Windows HyperV server. The reason that I set up this server was to use the combination of a Linux server and a Windows desktop to get remote access to my home network. I thought that I would elaborate on the tools that I use to get into my home network from work or while traveling.

I use several methods, each with certain advantages and disadvantages. Mostly I prefer SSH over pretty much anything else in order to connect to a Linux host, and I prefer Remote Desktop over pretty much anything else in order to connect to a Windows host. As a backup, I will use Teamviewer. It’s not ideal, but it works where other services fail.

SSH is pretty much a Swiss Army Knife of network tools. You can use it to do waaaay more with it than just log into a Unix box and execute commands. It’s a tool for creating encrypted tunnels, it just so happens that 90% of those tunnels connect to remote shells. In addition to connecting to a remote shell, you can open ports on a host. I am fortunate enough to have Cincinnati Bell Fioptics which lets me open almost any port on my firewall without any bother. I forward port 22 directly to a Linux box named HUB, and I secure it with SSH keys. I can then use SSH to tunnel traffic into my home network, be that browser traffic through a SOCKS proxy and dynamic port, or RDP traffic with a local port. This works well when I am in a restrictive network that still allows outbound SSH traffic, and as long as I have my Putty session set up ahead of time with my private key. This is the technique that I use when I am not able to access my network through NeoRouter.

Remote Desktop (RDP) is another Swiss Army Knife for connecting to computers. I use Windows as my primary desktop OS. I like to use Linux mostly for server stuff and for running specific tools like Clonezilla or Kali. As a matter of fact, I prefer Linux for servers and tools over Windows. I know, I’m an odd duck. RDP not only gives you remote access to the Windows Desktop, it lets you map drives remotely to transfer files and it lets you connect at a desktop resolution that is greater or lesser than that of the machine that you are connecting to. This is a big deal when you are using RDP on a wide-screen monitor to control a server that is plugged into an old CRT monitor, or when you are using a tiny netbook to control your multi-screen desktop. Teamviewer (and the VNC server that it is based on) cannot do that.

In order to make my SSH and RDP connections, I like to use either NeoRouter or OpenVPN. NeoRouter is technically a split-tunneling VPN solution, but I like to think of it as creating a network of computers that is independent of their actual networks. Split-tunneling VPN is a fancy term for VPN connections that don’t mess with your Internet access. There are lots of other features for split-tunnels, but under most circumstances, I want my computers to talk to each other differently than they talk to the Internet.

The NeoRouter network explorer tool lets me see which of my computers are up and connected. I run the NeoRouter server on HUB, which is sitting behind my firewall, with port 32976 forwarded to it as well. Running the server inside my firewall lets me do some neat networking tricks, like having my BitTorrent VM connect to the internal IP for HUB, instead of using the Internet. My BitTorrent box uses a VPN client to route all Internet traffic through Sweden, which really slows down my Remote Desktop session. I run the NeoRouter client on my desktops and laptops, and also on my file servers so that I can access shared folders remotely. File transfers this way can be really slow, so I also use One Drive top share big files like videos or ISO images.

OpenVPN is my tool of choice for open WiFi networks at hotels and coffee shops. I can access my home network while also securing all of my network traffic. I run OpenVPN Access Server on a dedicated VM named GATE. Access Server is easy to use and configure, and it’s free for two concurrent connections. For occasional use, especially by people other than me, it works really well. There’s even a ready made Hyper-V appliance that you can just boot up and go. I used to run OpenVPN on HUB, but the networking/subnet stuff meant that I had to remember the internal IP for the OpenVPN network segment and change it to connect to NeoRouter. So I just use two separate machines and it all works out. I have built OpenVPN servers without Access Server in the past. I like to use the Turnkey Linux OpenVPN appliance, and setup couldn’t be easier.

If I cannot get in via NeoRouter, OpenVPN, or old school SSH tunneling, then I fall back on using TeamViewer. It can get me in when pretty much all other tools fail me, but it’s not as nice as using RDP. Also, it should be noted that TeamViewer can only be used to control graphical desktops, there is no command line equivalent. In order to alleviate some of the frustrations of TeamViewer’s desktop resolution, I run a dedicated Windows VM that I call Portal. I keep the native (console) resolution fairly low, and I have RDP and Putty sessions set up so I can quickly connect to my other computers.

One other thing that I use Portal for is to move files into and out of my home network. You can use RDP or TeamViewer to copy files, but for big files like videos and ISO’s, One Drive does a much better job. I have a dedicated One Drive account that I use specifically for moving files this way. I just grab a file from somewhere, copy it to the One Drive folder on Portal, and it automagically uploads. Then, some time later, I can use the One Drive website to download the file, at much faster speeds than using RDP, SCP (SSH), or TeamViewer’s file transfer tool. It’s an extra step, but one worth taking, especially if I find myself in an oh-shit-i-forgot-that-important-file situation.

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