Before installing a trial version of Ericom Software's Ericom AccessNow 2.0, I checked out the online demos on the company's website. I'm already using Windows 8 Release Preview, so the demos needed to work in Internet Explorer (IE) 10.0. There were no problems on that front. Surprisingly, as I clicked to access a full Windows desktop on Ericom's remote server, I got instant access without needing to install a client-side component. I didn't need an ActiveX control, a Java applet, or any type of client software whatsoever.

Using HTML5, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), AccessNow displays remote desktops in web browsers in the same way as a traditional remote desktop client. Although AccessNow doesn't work as quickly as Microsoft's ActiveX-based remote desktop software, the advantages of being able to access a remote desktop or application in any browser that supports web standards, with no client software to install or update, outweighs a minor loss in performance.

AccessNow can connect directly to Microsoft Remote Desktop Services, in which case it relies on whatever authentication mechanism is enabled on the Windows server. Microsoft's Remote Desktop Gateway isn't supported because AccessNow uses HTML5 with WebSockets. However, Ericom includes its own free Secure Gateway server application, which can provide SSL encryption if required.

There are AccessNow versions for remote desktop technologies other than those provided by Microsoft, such as Citrix Systems, VMware, and Quest Software. For more sophisticated connection and security options, Ericom also has its own connection broker software, PowerTerm WebConnect. It provides options such as centralized management capabilities, reports on who is connected to which servers, and robust enterprise-grade load balancing capabilities. PowerTerm WebConnect also has full support for VMware virtual desktop infrastructures and virtual machine (VM) pools that automatically grow and shrink based on desktop utilization.

Installation

AccessNow consists of three parts: the AccessNow server (a WebSocket server), an optional Secure Gateway server, and web components that can be customized to suit your organization's branding and embedded in third-party web pages. Although not required, Ericom recommends that the AccessNow server software be installed on an RDP host for best performance and to enable features such as file transfer. The AccessNow server software is compatible with Windows XP and later.

Ericom claims that you can install the AccessNow server software in five minutes on your RDP server, and that's true. When you run the provided installer package, you just need to click Next and Finish. The only additional step you need to take is to configure the server's firewall to make sure inbound access on port 8080 is open to AccessNowServer32.exe. Because AccessNow doesn't support Network Level Authentication, I had to change the Windows RDP host connection settings on the Remote tab in the Control Panel's System applet to allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop Services (less secure) before I could make a connection through AccessNow.

Once installed, you can connect to the AccessNow server from any client running a compatible browser by entering http://machinename:8080/accessnow/start.html, where machinename is the name of the server on which you installed AccessNow. You then enter the connection information in the screen shown in Figure 1. Because the AccessNow server is installed on my RDP host, I can leave the first two fields on the connection screen blank. The username and password entered here are passed to Windows for authentication. Clicking Connect took me straight to my remote desktop.

Figure 1: Using AccessNow to Access a Remote Desktop in a Browser Window
Figure 1: Using AccessNow to Access a Remote Desktop in a Browser Window 

The AccessNow server has a small configuration applet that you can access from the Start menu on the RDP host. From there, you can perform all necessary administration tasks such as managing licensing, restarting the AccessNow service, viewing performance statistics, changing the port on which AccessNow listens for connections, and configuring advanced options (e.g., acceleration, logging, and security settings).

File Transfers and Printing

Most browsers impose restrictions on the local resources (e.g., file system, printers) that web pages can access, so Ericom has implemented some clever workarounds to make sure users don't miss out on features found in standard RDP clients. In the top right corner of the browser window, you'll find two buttons for uploading and downloading files between the local and remote desktops. The same functionality can also be achieved by dragging and dropping files in the browser window.

When uploading a file to the remote desktop, you're presented with a standard Windows dialog box to choose the appropriate file. After a short delay, another dialog box appears on the remote desktop asking where you want to save the file. Naturally, this works in reverse order for downloading files to the local computer. When uploading files to a remote desktop, AccessNow displays a progress bar. When downloading files from a remote desktop, the browser takes responsibility for showing the download progress. Curiously, I was able to select multiple files when uploading to my remote desktop but not when downloading from it. Folders can't be selected for either upload or download.

AccessNow installs its own printer on the remote desktop. If you choose to print to this device, a dialog box appears in the browser window on the local computer offering the option to view the document. This opens the printed document from the remote desktop in Adobe Reader in a separate browser window, where you have the option to print it to a locally installed printer.

Security

AccessNow allows secure WebSocket communications by means of a self-signed certificate. Not all browsers support SSL-encrypted WebSocket connections, so users can opt to disable SSL security in the AccessNow client. Ericom provides the free Secure Gateway server application that can be used in conjunction with AccessNow to provide an additional level of security. The Secure Gateway server authenticates users before they access any internal resources and provides always-on secure WebSocket connections between AccessNow clients and AccessNow servers. Secure Gateway comes with a self-signed certificate installed by default, but it also supports trusted certificates.

Secure Gateway servers can be placed in a demilitarized zone (DMZ) and communicate over the Internet on port 443 using WebSockets. A Secure Gateway server must be a member of the domain in which you want to authenticate users and can be installed on Windows Server 2003 or later and requires Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0.

A Simple, Elegant Solution

AccessNow is a simple, elegant solution for providing access to remote desktops through a web browser, without the need for any client software. With support for most of the standard RDP features provided by Microsoft's own client (including file transfers, printing, and even sound), AccessNow should prove suitable for most standard line of business (LOB) applications.

I only wish that Citrix Systems and Microsoft would use completely browser-based clients for the Citrix GoToMeeting, Citrix WebEx, and Microsoft Office LiveMeeting software. This would save system administrators the pain of having to install and maintain the software that's currently necessary to join web meetings.

Ericom AccessNow 2.0
PROS: Perfect for giving users access to remote desktops from systems where client software can't be installed (e.g., Google Chromebooks, Windows ARM-based tablets)
CONS: Doesn't work with Remote Desktop Gateway, but Ericom includes its own free Secure Gateway application
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: Concurrent license starts at $124; per-seat license starts at $69; monthly subscription also available
RECOMMENDATION: Using AccessNow is an ideal way to provide remote desktop access with HTML5, which is supported by most modern web browsers. If you don't want to manage remote desktop client installations and updates, AccessNow could be a viable option.
CONTACT: Ericom Software • 888-769-7876 or 201-767-2210 •