Technology: Remote Access


By Simon Buddle, Future Ready Homes. Good afternoon everyone. On this cold and windswept day it would seem like a good time to batten ...

Simon BuddleBy Simon Buddle, Future Ready Homes. Good afternoon everyone. On this cold and windswept day it would seem like a good time to batten down the hatches, put on a thick fleece and pretend that the outside world isn’t happening. It’s always bleak at this time of year, the long grey has set in and we’ll see no sun for a month or two. Driving to the office in the dark and then home again in it makes my desire to hibernate increase daily. But, of course, staying at home means no work, and no work means no money, so hibernating isn’t going to happen. What lies beneath the truly intelligent home are a set of rules which decide actions based upon certain events. The ‘If this then that’, https://ifttt.com/  website allows people to create simple control functions for themselves. For example at my old office one of the guys set up the Philips Hue lights to flash red whenever a fire alarm test email was sent out. You could also get an email sent to you if the Nest Protect battery is low and needs replacing. These functions are very easy to set up, simple in application but not necessarily the right answer for a larger control system. Many systems give you the option to set up real-time alerts/emails but real-time monitoring requires a bit more. [caption id="attachment_8225" align="alignleft" width="320"]Buddle_BT Home Hub BT Home Hub[/caption] So how do we go about getting notifications and or monitoring a system in a proactive way for our clients? Step one has to be a planned service and maintenance contract. As part of the contract there must be the ability to connect to the site remotely. There are a number of ways to gain access to the client’s local computer(s). LogMeIn, although no longer free, coupled with an onsite engineering machine is one method. Sadly, for me at least, this seems fraught with problems. The latest OS update, the cleaner has knocked the power lead out ensuring the machine has gone off to la-la-land and won’t be coming back until the problem is fixed. The easy answer is a VPN connection. Setting up a Virtual Private Network needs some basic IT understanding but once gained it can be invaluable during hibernation, no actually, at any time. It will save you countless hours sitting in traffic and crucially it enables you to react instantly or nearly instantly when you get that call. [caption id="attachment_8226" align="alignleft" width="320"]Draytek router with built-in VPN Draytek router with built-in VPN[/caption] How do you set up a VPN? First of all you need to establish if the client’s router has a VPN server built in. Many BT and Sky ones do not, so you’ll need to supply one that does, for example a Draytek unit. At this point, before buying anything, ask yourself the question, ‘do I have the IT skills necessary to do this safely and securely’? If you create an open door in to your customers data network and don’t secure it properly there’ll be a big internet troll wandering through it before you can say ‘Gandalf help me!’ and then, I’m guessing, there’ll be a lawyer heading towards yours soon after. There are plenty of places where you can go for training, CEDIA being the obvious choice. Setting up the ports, services, and security on the modem and router takes a bit of time but is essentially just mapping the correct services to the right IP address and then creating the security protocol that you feel most comfortable. If you’re not sure which ones are weak and which are strong take advice from a specialist. Always use strong passwords and be sure to change them at regular intervals. [caption id="attachment_8227" align="aligncenter" width="941"]DynDNS setup for VPN connection. DynDNS setup for VPN connection.[/caption] The final issue that might make itself known is that the external Web-facing IP address of the modem might not be static. This will mean signing yourself up to a service such as DnyDNS that will track the IP address as it changes so that you can always ‘find’ the customers modem  from a known name. In fact you tell the modem which DNS service it is registered to and the modem updates the service when it’s IP changes. Most business Internet contracts in fact have a static IP but the standard residential contracts tend to have dynamic IPs. You can of course specify a static IP but it generally costs more. [caption id="attachment_8228" align="alignleft" width="320"]Real time monitoring via VPN connection. Real time monitoring via VPN connection.[/caption] Once it’s all set up you will then be able to connect to the customer’s network as if you were there onsite. This now gives you the facility to monitor in real time and download changes remotely. I will just add one word of caution here and that is think hard about what you do remotely. Do you want to do a full firmware update or download a new and untested programme? There are clear risks involved if you update the lighting processors firmware and the Internet connection crashes half way through, it’s possible the lighting processor now thinks it’s a toaster, so be careful. Being able to remotely power down/up the Sky box via an IP mains switcher or reporting the flow temperature of the under floor heating back to a client whilst you have them on the phone is hugely beneficial for the home owner, it’s financially more efficient for both of you. And finally it may just give you the edge over some of those firms who are working out of the back of their vans; making your business appear more professional, capable of reacting more quickly and therefore the right company to choose to do business with. Simon Buddle is a consultant for Future Ready Homes, a specialist in BMS and ELV services system design. Simon is also a regular contributor to HiddenWires magazine, and the first winner of the CEDIA Region 1 Special Recognition Award. futurereadyhomes.com