Review: Dell Remote Access v1.1.0.5

By Lisa Phifer

May 14, 2009

Dell Remote Access offers fast, easy media sharing without dedicated server or file upload hassles.

Dell Remote Access v1.1.0.5

Price: $9.95/month; $99.95/year
Pros:  Fast-and-easy media sharing without dedicated server or file upload hassles
Cons: Inflexible configuration; weak security; warranty or fee for tech support

From YouTube to Flickr, online media sharing is hot. When Dell decided to join the party, it enlisted SingleClickSystems to deliver music, photo, video, and desktop sharing as an online service. The result--Dell Remote Access--is a relatively painless, but limited, way to share bits of your home network with distant friends and family.

No assembly required

Many consumers upload files to Websites, inviting others to view or download content. Dell Remote Access deviates from this paradigm by skipping the upload. Instead, Dell maps externally-accessible URLs to content inside your network. You still choose which media files (or Web servers or desktops) to share--you just don't have to copy them to make them Internet-reachable.

To do this, Dell Remote Access uses a media server inside your network to discover, index, and reach anything you want to share. But where competitors, such as Windows Home Server require dedicated platforms, Dell's software runs on any Windows XP or Vista PC with a 1 GHz CPU, 1 GB HDD, and 512 MB RAM. That PC can be used for other purposes, so long as it stays powered-on and Internet-connected.

But, what does Dell Remote Access share? The answer highlights this service's strengths and its weaknesses. Upon installation, Dell's server scans its subnet, using protocols widely supported by networked devices--specifically NetBIOS, UPnP, HTTP, and RDP. It then periodically probes every discovered device to identify all Web, desktop, and fileshare services.

Thereafter, you can reach this list by logging into my.dellremoteaccess.com. If you install a new device, it shows up within ten minutes. If that device listens to port 80, you'll be able connect to that Website remotely. If it listens to port 3389, you can use that desktop from afar via RDP. If the server can read or write to Windows fileshares on that device, you can add them to your indexed media list. You can also share any service or file/folder by e-mailing invitations used to reach them.

However, you can't permanently remove any device from the list. If you don't want remote access to a server or desktop, you must disable/block HTTP or RDP on that device. To rescind an invitation, you must move or delete targeted content. If you'd prefer to enable secure access through an SSL-protected page, too bad.

In short, Dell Remote Access does what it does with great simplicity—but it offers very little customization. In its successful attempt to deliver "zero config" sharing, Dell Remote Access is a bit inflexible.

Choppy start

We decided to give Dell Remote Access a go in our home network. The installer is entry-level, requiring no input--not even a program directory. By default, the service shares the server's MyDocuments folder. The only substantive option is an offer to set up RDP and/or VNC desktop sharing. Most users should skip that unless they understand the ramifications.

During installation, a connection test measures latency and upstream/downstream bandwidth. This is not an ordinary "speed test"--rather, it predicts what an Internet user will experience when they click a URL to be redirected by Dell's Website through his or her own media server.

An intuitive graph describes the content users can expect to share. Dell recommends using 100 Kbps to share MP3 and low-res video only, while multi-megabit uplinks can share HDTV. YouTube and 640x480 video fall in between. For example, sharing a Webcam feed requires 1 Mbps or better. But since performance also depends on the remote side, this is just an upper bound.

Most customers will sail through set-up, following e-mailed instructions to log into Dell's Website and reach their home network in minutes. Alas, we did not--our network status toggled rapidly, preventing use. We tried another laptop and broadband router, with the same outcome.

With SingleClick CEO Scot Zarkiewicz's help, we fingered the culprit: anti-virus. The installer enumerates processes blocked by personal firewalls--customers must permit those exceptions. Although we had disabled our firewall, we had to remove our AV to get Dell Remote Access rolling. Zarkiewicz had seen this just once and said the service is compatible with most AV programs.

Zarkiewicz helped us, but customers will need to rely on Website FAQs. Chat/phone support requires a Dell hardware warranty or $49 On Call service. Customers who start their trial with a new Dell PC are all set, but others may balk at paid support.

Smooth sailing

Once we left the harbor, our ride was (mostly) smooth. Despite its moniker, this service's primary target is simplified multimedia folder/file sharing.

To share media on your Windows Network Neighborhood, use your server's GUI to Add or Delete fileshares. Access ultimately depends on Windows permissions. If the added file/folder is read-only, remote users won't be able to upload or overwrite them. If your media server has write access, any user can do those things from afar using a shared URL.

For example, to invite a friend to access a video, you'll send them a permanent URL like this:

http://data-1003.dellremoteaccess.com/dolink.php?fi=1396&fl=3&fy=f203546b8594

When that link is clicked, Dell's Website redirects your friend's browser to your media server using a mapped dynamic URL like this:

http://c-71-224-150-106.hsd1.pa.comcast.net:38479/

There's no need to configure firewall rules or expose folder hierarchies. The media server is responsible for linking to shared content, indexed by type. It even generates searchable pages to find videos, photos, or music.

DellRemoteAccessFigure_sm.jpg

Shared files can be streamed, downloaded, or uploaded. For example, when we shared a Windows-resident MPEG with a MacBook aficionado, opening (streaming) it launched iTunes, but saving (downloading) it let QuickTime play the file.

On a Windows Mobile smartphone, Windows Media Player could stream WMA files, but could only play downloaded MPEG and MP3 files. We also used that smartphone to watch a photo slideshow, but could not upload photos due to browser limitations.

Dell does an admirable job of media sharing, making file types transparent and hiding cross-platform complexities, but some functions are inevitably device/application-dependent.

Batten down the hatches

No feature better illustrates this than desktop sharing. Win32 desktops can be reached remotely via Microsoft RDP. Win32 or Java-capable desktops can be reached by installing UltraVNC. If either runs on a discovered device, you can click a shareable URL to launch it.

But whether the session starts depends on desktop GINA compatibility, logon state, and credentials (RDP needs a Windows account, VNC a password). Remote users must also accept and run an unsigned viewer (rcp_client.exe); if left behind, anyone can run it to reach the same desktop. In our view, this feature needs hardening before we'd be comfortable using it.

In fact, when you visit my.dellremoteaccess.com, your login and Home, My Devices, and My Account interactions are all TLS/SSL-encrypted. But when redirected to a media server, vanilla HTTP takes over. Dell does not encrypt shared files, shared Web pages, shared RDP/VNC sessions, or sharing invitations. Many home users will not be overly concerned, but those sharing sensitive resources should be.

Full steam ahead

Even an inexpensive, simple service needs to be fast. We were thus pleased by the snappy downloads we experienced. In fact, every remote access session starts with a connection test to set "network speed" expectations.

Downloads over EV-DO (speed = 144 Kbps) were tolerable--for example, 1:40 to save one 5 MB song. We saved the same song in one fifth the time at a Wi-Fi hotspot (speed = 1.4 Mbps), and 5-10 seconds at broadband networks (1.4 to 5.8 Mbps). We would not perform extensive downloads on our smartphone, but these times were perceived as reasonable by friends we invited to download content.

Interestingly, our download speeds were not influenced by Wi-Fi connections inside our network: shares connected via 802.11b, 11g, and 11n were all limited by our 5.8 Mbps broadband. But uploads showed measurable differences, with 802.11n and 100 Mbps Ethernet performing twice as well as 11b/g.

Ultimately, the most important thing to consider when using Wi-Fi is reliability. If you have a flakey 802.11g WLAN, connect your media server via 100 Mbps Ethernet. Otherwise, don't hesitate to use Dell Remote Access to share wired or wireless-connected media with trusted friends and family.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. She has been involved in the design, implementation, assessment, and testing of NetSec products and services for over 25 years.



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