There are many ways to make files available over the Internet. The real challenge here is finding a secure, easy-to-use solution.
We recommend TeamViewer as the ideal solution for remotely accessing a PC, whether you’re accessing your own PC or performing remote tech support. TeamViewer is most often used to remotely access a PC’s desktop. However, it also has a remote file transfer feature you might not have noticed. Just select the File transfer option when connecting to a remote PC.
You’ll be able to move files back and forth between the two PCs. Set up TeamViewer for unattended access and you’ll be able to do this as long as the remote PC is online.
TeamViewer runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. You can also use the File Transfer feature from the TeamViewer Android or iOS apps. This is an easy-to-use, cross-platform solution. You don’t have to worry about forwarding ports or exposing server software to the Internet and securing it yourself.
Dedicated NAS Devices & Routers
Some dedicated NAS (network-attached storage) devices have integrated support for accessing your files over the Internet. If the NAS doesn’t, you can always forward ports to make its web interface accessible from the Internet. However, this could easily be insecure. Your NAS device’s web interface may not be secure if it’s designed for only being accessed over a secure local network.
Some routers also come with a USB port and allow you to connect a USB hard drive. The USB hard drive can then be accessed on any computer on your local network. Your router may also support sharing any attached storage devices over the Internet. Store your PC’s important files on the network storage device and access it over the Internet.
Be sure to do some research and see if your NAS or router’s Internet file sharing features are secure. Consumer routers are notoriously insecure.
You could also set up a VPN server on your home network and connect to that. Your computer will then be considered part of your local network, and it can access all local file shares. This allows you to access shared Windows folders and other network storage devices that would only be accessible on the local network.
This is the way businesses grant access to their file shares. Rather than securing potentially insecure file-sharing solutions, you just have to secure the VPN server itself and control access to it. If you have a NAS and are worried about exposing it to the Internet for security reasons, you may want to just expose a VPN server and connect to the NAS through the VPN server.
If you have already have an SSH server running on your local network, you can use SSH tunneling to access local network resources rather than setting up a VPN.
FTP Servers and Other Server Software
You could install an FTP (file transfer protocol) server on your computer and grant access to it from the Internet. This isn’t really ideal from a security perspective, as you’d have to expose the FTP server to the Internet. (You could also set up both a VPN and an FTP server, accessing the FTP server through the VPN.)
Normal FTP is unencrypted, which means people could eavesdrop on your password and your files in transit. You should go out of your way to enable secure FTP and set a very secure password if you do this.
When exposing server software to the Internet, you have to worry about configuring it securely and keeping it updated. You probably don’t want to use server software like this on your home PC when there are easier solutions available.
Cloud Storage Services
Microsoft once offered a remote file-fetching solution that allowed you to access a PC’s files over the Internet as part of the Windows Live Mesh application. They discontinued that product in favor of SkyDrive, now known as OneDrive.
Like Dropbox and Google Drive, OneDrive is a cloud file storage solution that provides you with a special folder on your PC. Files and folders you place into this folder are uploaded to your cloud storage account online and synced to all your PCs. You can run the client on all your PCs to sync files, or you can access the service via your browser or mobile app to download individual files you need.
Microsoft discontinued Windows Live Mesh because they believe a cloud storage service is the ideal way for an average user to access their files. You don’t have to leave your PC online, install server software, or use a dedicated device. You can’t access any file you want on your PC — you’ll have to sync the files you care about and access them.
This may not be the ideal solution for power users, but it is the simplest solution for the average user who wants to access their personal documents from anywhere. It gives you an online backup, too.
We recommend using either TeamViewer (if you want to access files stored on your PC) or a cloud storage service (if you’re happy syncing your files online). If you have a dedicated NAS device at home, that device may help you set up access to its files over the Internet. If you have a larger network with multiple file shares — such as a business network — you may want to set up a VPN Server.
Don’t set up a VPN server, SSH server, or FTP server unless you know what you’re doing. Configure the software incorrectly or use insecure server software and your computer could be compromised by port-scanning bots that scan for open servers and attempt to compromise them.
Image Credit: Vernon Chan on Flickr