my virtual desktop
February 13, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm a low- to medium-grade computer techie. I've recently fallen in love with the remote desktop concept (I've been using TeamViewer). I have my main PC with all my data and the software I use, setup how I like it, and then remote into that from mobile devices, friend's computers, work computers, etc., even my laptop I now prefer to use as a portal into my main PC.

Great. But of course that main computer has to be on all the time, it has to be working properly and it displays what I'm doing on it remotely that others can see. So I think I want a virtual computer (in the cloud) that I can setup as I want, load my own software on to, store data local to it. And to be able to remote into it whenever and from wherever I want.

So ... could you please help me find what I want?

Is this some very normal thing to do and I just have to subscribe to the right service? I've looked at EC2 and really quickly get overwhelmed by the options and complexity and terminology. Is that the right path and I just have to work it out?

I have access to a hosting service - could I in theory run my own virtual machine there (vbox or something?). I only know about ftp and http access into that environment. I'd need something else I guess?

Any pointers please?
Any simple-ish services I can sign up for?
Or a "how to" page somewhere?

posted by Xhris to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've used Amazon EC2 for this. I know you say you've been overwhelmed, but there are tutorials on the web. Try this one, for instance. You can stop before the web server installation. Although it might not give you everything you want, it should give you an idea of how easy the process can be.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:41 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a former tech, the one issue that is always on my mind was security. While most desktop sharing software, servers, virtual machines offer defenses to whatever degree they do, it was always my concern that somehow it would be bypassed. So unless that question of the security of an online point was answered first to my satisfaction, going further in the process was moot.

This is no complete answer to your question, but when considering a setup like this, it should be one of the starting points to consider.

Don't be discouraged though....what you are asking for is very attainable. Just be safe.
posted by lampshade at 9:45 AM on February 13, 2012

Assuming you are in the US.

What you want to do is a bit more complicated than at first glance.

Do you want to run a server on the cloud?
Dip your toes into rackspace cloud services - they have great support, choice of installations (Win Servers, Linux) that can have you up and running in 15 minutes with a 400/200 pipe. Better pricing the EC2. You will get a dedicated IP, RDP access from anywhere and everything your criteria above states.

The problem here is even though Win 2008 or Linux is supported, you still have to have the expertise to use it.

I personally would suggest finding a local company with a datacentre and having a quick chat about what you really want to accomplish. The cloud may not be the best choice for this type of use, given the costs are higher, you are dependent on the cloud which means the way you want to use it, might not be the best choice.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 9:49 AM on February 13, 2012

Great. But of course that main computer has to be on all the time, it has to be working properly and it displays what I'm doing on it remotely that others can see

If that last point i a bigger sticking point than the others, you might want to try RDP connections too. Those connections run under a virtual desktop (locks the host's desktop however unless your host OS is Windows Server or a "tweaked" standard Windows Pro/Enterprise/Ultimate...on regular Windows only one desktop can be active at a time).

You could also RDP to a virtual RDP display if you choose to host your OS under VirtualBox. This would give you the ability to remotely view and troubleshoot the boot process. For my headless virtualbox server, I use PHPVirtualBox which helps with management. Echo'ing Lampshades caution however on security...if you can access this from anywhere it is likely the rest of the world has an opportunity to as well...and nothing is more tempting to hackers than a remotely accessible PC (passwords aren't the end-all'll probably want to limit IP ranges on what can connect as well as implement certificate based authentication along side your regular password)
posted by samsara at 9:50 AM on February 13, 2012

Seconding lampshade regarding security - we run our cloud for core services, we still pay an enormous amount for security and backup.

For the beginner that wants to get into cloud technologies though, Rackspace is the way to go.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 9:50 AM on February 13, 2012

You don't necessarily have to have your main computer on all the time. Chances are it supports Wake On LAN and can be configured to turn itself on when it receives a special packet from the LAN. An always-on router running DD-WRT can be configured to seemlessly send this packet and turn the machine on when you attempt to connect to it.

Also, depending on what your motherboard and network adapter support, Wake-On-LAN can even be configured to turn the computer on if it receives LAN traffic that is directed towards it without the need for DD-WRT.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:55 AM on February 13, 2012

"But of course that main computer has to be on all the time, it has to be working properly and it displays what I'm doing on it remotely that others can see."

This isn't all exactly true. Assuming you want a Windows or Linux desktop if you're looking to virtualize to the cloud. You could enable wake-on-lane for your main desktop and set up your router to send it the wake-ping whenever you wanted to get in. It might take a minute for it to come back up, but you wouldn't be paying for a hosted virtual machine. If it's windows, you can connect with a remote desktop client instead of teamviewer and that doesn't display your actions on the local desktop. Under Linux X was built for this mode of operation.

If you went this route I'd suggest setting up a private vpn on your router as well to keep things secure.

Not exactly sign-up and go simple, but you'll learn a lot :)
posted by roue at 9:56 AM on February 13, 2012

Thanks for info so far. To clarify. I am in the USA. I want a virtual Windows 7 desktop.
When I read up on this sort of thing, the assumption is that I want a server of some kind, running web apps. That's not what I want, I want my personal computer - but accessible from anywhere. Any more tips please.
posted by Xhris at 10:44 AM on February 13, 2012

hmmm...wonder if you couldn't configure it so 'wake-on-lan' also included 'disable monitor'.
also, do you actually use the 'main computer'?...if you're always accessing it from laptop/phone/ipad/elewhere, do you even need the monitor at all?
posted by sexyrobot at 11:40 AM on February 13, 2012

Hi Xhris,

No worries - what you are asking for doesn't really exist as a consumer service. A virtual Win 7 desktop HAS to be run from something and/or somewhere.

If you want your personal computer accessible from anywhere and do it yourself:

1. Get a static IP from your ISP - that means the computer has one address much like your physical mail address. The cost is minimal and makes sure your are always connecting to the right PC. Talk to your broadband provider.
2. Understand that leaving a computer on is leaving it in its natural state. They are built to be left on. Your liabilities are power going out and the internet going down - same as the cloud.
3. Determine what applications you want to run. Sure, I can RDP into Word or Outlook but if I want to stream my iTunes or videos to my mobile, then I need software to do it and need to be able to tell my Win 7 box that its ok.
4.. Use google and youtube to support Points 1 and 2.

Sorry Xhris the advice doesn't get more specific, but as roue, ronbutnotstupid point out, it's easy to access everything on your pc without worrying about on/off or location.

Option 2 - best for what is described in this askme is logmein Pro - that will allow you to connect to your PC, wake it up, share files, stream audio/video. It is the worlds most popular remote control provider for corporations and people. I think it costs something like 49 bucks a year and might be what you are looking for while being extremely secure.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 1:53 PM on February 13, 2012

Forgot to add (2nd time), logmein supports mobile devices as well as ipad. All you need is an internet connection.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 1:56 PM on February 13, 2012

Have you tried a Google search on Windows 7 VPS solutions?.

Just looking at the first few hits, VPSLAND seems to offer Win 7 with remote desktop access.

But I can't recommend any particular provider, unless you're interested in Linux. I use for my Linux host, and they are great, but don't offer Windows.
posted by Diag at 1:57 PM on February 13, 2012

1. Get a static IP from your ISP - that means the computer has one address much like your physical mail address. The cost is minimal and makes sure your are always connecting to the right PC. Talk to your broadband provider.

My understanding is that many providers will only offer you the option of a static IP address if you have a business account with them, which is typically much more expensive than residential service. While a static IP address would be nice, a dynamic dns hostname updated automatically by a dedicated router is usually sufficient.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:55 PM on February 13, 2012

I think what Xhris is asking for, is server space somewhere, remote from where he lives and works, that he can load application software on, and access from anywhere. So, rather than having an always-on computer at home or work, connected to the Internet, that he could access from anywhere, he wants the remote "server" or disk space to be his computer.
posted by jayder at 7:55 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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