Here is a recap of the challenges associated with remotely accessing computers at home behind a typical broadband connection:
- The operating system. Most common versions of Windows have few built-in features to act as a server. Remote desktop is the only one that works out of the box. Even that is of limited value because of the licensing stipulations: a remote user will log out the interactive one for XP Professional and all Vista editions. Only the server SKUs, rarely found installed on end-user machines support concurrent logon sessions. Even the one remote connection you can forget about with XP Home edition, where 3rd party VNC solutions are the only way to access the machine remotely. IIS is available as an optional add-on for most SKUs. Linux and Mac OS-X are better in this respect out-of-the-box since they are traditionally used for both client and server roles. But none of the solutions amount to an easy-to-use, secure remote access/sharing solution for novice users.
- Firewall interference. Not only does the OS lack server-side applications, it gets in the way of others with the default firewall configuration. The personal firewall is an important security feature introduced in Windows XP and significantly strengthened in XP SP2. Its deployment coincided with the rise of botnets, when reports were circulating that a Windows machine attached to an always-on broadband connection will be 0wned in a matter of minutes. This reality informed the decision to block most inbound ports. (Fortunately applications adjusted– after installation they silently opened the ports necessary by changing firewall settings, a trick that stopped working when Vista introduced the largely inane UAC feature.)
- Home networking configuration. The standard configuration for most home networks involves a wireless router in the mix, behind another cable/DSL modem. This means that the PCs are not directly exposed to the internet egress. Good for security, more hoops to jump through for using the system remotely. Routers typically have built-in web UI which can be used for setting up port forwarding. On the fighting chance that users managed to get past first two hurdles, this is where they could stumble. The number of routers that support UPnP may be an encouraging sign here as that protocol can be used to dynamically open-up external facing ports.
- ISPs. Finally the biggest obstacles are the internet service providers themselves. For all the advances in infrastructure, upstream bandwidth remains a scarce commodity. For example, here in Manhattan the standard Time-Warner package provides 10Mbps downstream and 512kbps upstream. That’s a factor of 20x. In the most “equitable” scenario, our previous provider in Central Florida offered 9Mbps down/1.5Mbps up. On top of the constrained bandwidth, there is port-blocking, often couched in the language of security intended to confuse users. For example blocking port 25 has certainly helped stem the tide of spam originating from zombies. But it also prevented users from hosting their own email server at home. Similarly inbound port 80 is often blocked to preempt web-servers operating out of the basement– at least not without shelling out for the “business class subscription” from the ISP.
The result of these policies has been the imposition of a dual-standard on broadband subscribers. They are expected to consume content originating elsewhere. Copious amounts of bandwidth is available for this and ISPs are falling over trying to provide exclusive content in an attempt to move up the value chain. But customers are also discouraged from participating in the distribution of content, even accessing their own resources remotely.