Remote desktops

While everyone knows the best way to do remote access is SSH, sometimes it’s nice (and even necessary) to have access to an entire desktop.

Maybe you need to show Auntie Ethel how to change her desktop background, or how to get nmap to make a diagram of a rival knitting circle’s network.

This surfeit of graphics data presents a problem, especially for the bandwidth-challenged, which a number of technologies aim to solve. Linux favours the VNC protocol, while Windows favours the largely-closed source Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).

There’s nothing OS-specific about either of these though. They both work directly on the framebuffer, so the underlying technology works equally well on Windows or Linux. The NX protocol used in NoMachine NX challenges both of these with advanced compression and latency reducing tricks which in Linux work on the X protocol directly (or the RDP protocol in Windows).

Since 2010 though, the client has been closed source and while once a number of projects aimed to provide open source NX solutions, development of these has largely fallen by the wayside, with the exception being X2Go . The Chrome Remote Desktop app is still in beta, but will already be of interest to some.

Ease of use

Is it easy to install and navigate?

Finding a distribution for which a Remmina package doesn’t exist is unlikely as it’s rather popular. To get VNC functionality in Remmina requires libvncserver to be installed, but most distros will sort this out for you. On Arch Linux this package was listed as an optional dependency and needed to be installed manually.

 Despite the plethora of options everything in Remmina is laid out intuitively, so a straightforward connection is straightforward to set up. TigerVNC , on the other hand, can be rather tricky to locate packages for. Many distros, including Debian and Ubuntu, have opted for the older, and differing by two letters, TightVNC .

This is the second of four wizard-style screens that welcome you to NoMachine -ville.

Once you’ve managed to find some packages though, it’s easy enough to find your way around the client. It’s modelled after the ‘original’ RealVNC client and as such isn’t much to look at.

The default options will generally just work so connecting is an easy matter of typing a hostname into the address bar, although you might need to add a :1 to the end. Packages for x2go are available for most distros, including Raspbian.

After installing the server you may need to run x2godbadmin –createdb before you can connect. Some packagers seem to have been lazy here. The Qt4 client is easy enough to navigate, but could possibly be laid out in a tidier fashion. It provides reasonable session management through a list on the right- hand side. Installing the browser part of Chrome Remote Desktop app is, as you may imagine, very straightforward.

However, setting up a remote server (on Linux) involves installing a Deb package, which by all accounts doesn’t work out of the box. On Mint/Ubuntu files needed to be moved or symlinked before Chrome would present the option to enable remote connections.

This is a remote desktop clients Roundup, but we’re going to go ahead and penalise the app regardless, because this kind of suffering is implicit in its use. Once everything’s set up, though, you do get an easy-to- comprehend list of computers and remote assistance requests. NoMachine will need to be installed manually, but they do have Deb and RPM packages for you, as well as an installer bundle if these are unsuitable.

You will be greeted by a double- whammy of welcome messages, which may help you get your bearings, though the interface is straightforward (if a little garish). Servers can (optionally) advertise themselves on the network so that they are visible to all clients.


Someone said to read the manual. Is there even a manual?

Remmina is fairly self explanatory to use and has been translated into several languages. If you’re feeling brave you can delve deeper into the workings of the xfreerdp command that it uses for RDP sessions. Despite its appearance, TigerVNC has excellent man pages.

They will mostly be of interest to anyone wishing to tweak the server side of things, but the client has command line options for everything in the menus too. The X2Go server comes with a number of command line utilities which could be useful for scripting purposes.

They are all thoroughly documented in the provided man pages. The website has plenty of useful information too, not just on how the program works, but concerning future ideas for the project. There’s also quite a handy guide on which desktop environments may fail together with an explanation of why they do.

X2Go ’s website will help you get started and their mascot will charm you.

Some remedies are offered for simple cases, such as IceWM and OpenBox , and the bad news is all laid out clearly for anyone wanting to use a modern desktop. The Chrome Remote Desktop app really needs to provide better documentation for setting up the service. Granted it’s still in beta but this is a fundamental issue. Better yet, why not just provide some working packages? The app itself is straightforward enough that Auntie Ethel could use it. NoMachine ’s documentation is more than adequate, but it loses points for giving you four annoying instruction screens before letting you initially connect.

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