Off-Site Remote Controlled Servers

This one falls right near the line that separates "pretty darn useful" and "because I can." Since I'm now charged (for another few weeks anyway) of administering a Leopard Server, I need some way of running said server from home. Mainly because I don't like driving to the office at 9 PM to run software updates, check on backups, look in on my RAID or do other things that require me to control the computer, I needed a way to remotely control the computer.

Leopard server offers a few cool tools for doing this, but unfortunately, none of them allow me to take direct control of the machine with a graphical interface. Sure, I can SSH in and use terminal to do just about anything, but that would require me learning Linux commands and I'm a little too busy for that. No sir, what we need is remote access.

When you're on a LAN, the Mac OS (and by extension Leopard Server) offers a great utility called Screen Sharing. You can share any screen of any Mac running 10.5 or higher. It's super-easy and works like a charm. In fact, I often sit at my MacPro (with dual 22" monitors) running a screen sharing window to the server on one monitor and another one to my MacBook Pro on the other (which is all happening in 1 of 6 Spaces--normally other things are happening on the MacPro as well--I'm a geek, and I digress).

Sadly, Screen Sharing requires one to be on the same subnet, and that means a VPN doesn't qualify. However, it occured to me that Screen Sharing is essentially a gussied up VNC (Virtual Network Control), and it only takes one checkbox to enable other VNC clients to control the screen. So I checked the box and went home for the night. Actually, you have to enable a password for the VNC control as well. Can't be too careful.

From System Preferences, select the Sharing pane, the click on Remote Mangement. Use Computer Settings to get to the VNC menu. From System Preferences, select the Sharing pane, the click on Remote Mangement. Use Computer Settings to get to the VNC menu.
Once there, enable VNC control, and pick a password. Once there, enable VNC control, and pick a password.From home, I fired up my VPN (Virtual Private Network) that I set up on my Astaro ASG120 security device. It's using PPTP protocol, and is quite fast. Then I launched Chicken of the VNC (get it, Chicken of the vnC? geek humor, I love it!), and it immediately saw my server. I typed in the password and like magic, I was running my server--which is located 6.7 miles from my house. Sweet! You can also use Chicken of the VNC to control Macs running OS 10.4, though it's not as elegant as the built-into 10.5 Screen Sharing.

Now, one could argue that enabling VNC control is a security breach point. However, someone would first have to know the IP address of the server (which is not published anywhere since we're not hosting a site there), know a username and password to get in via VNP, know the username and password of the VNC connection and know the username and password of the admin account on the server. I feel reasonably safe, especially since we're not guarding state secrets.

You could also use this trick to screen share a presentation computer for troubleshooting from home if you have a VPN connection to your network. With a fast enough connection, you might be able to run ProPresenter from home, but that's another post.

*Warning* Make sure your network is secure before opening this up. Have multiple layers of hard to crack passwords and usernames in place before allowing this or any remote access to your network or server. Just so you know…