Your users are screaming for access to their files and e-mail both from home and from the road. You could set up a VPN to address the issue, but your users need access from various locations—and the cost for a complete Citrix solution is prohibitive.

One potential solution is LoudPC from LoudFire. This client application provides access to Outlook and Outlook Express from any Web phone, PDA, or browser. When using the service with a PC-based browser or PDA, subscribers can access remote files and e-mail via the LoudPC Web site. They can remotely access Outlook mail, as well as files on the PC on which the client was installed. This all works in real-time with no need to set up any kind of synchronization.

A secure service
I can already hear you bemoaning the huge security hole this will create in your infrastructure. But the folks at LoudPC have taken a number of steps to ease security concerns.

First, the service works with HTTPS using 128-bit encryption between the LoudPC Web site and your client. Second, LoudPC is simply a conduit between a browser and a remote PC. It does not store any private information on its servers. Third, the client is configured to never accept a socket request. It initiates socket requests only to the LoudPC servers. Finally, the LoudPC Web site is configured to disable caching of pages at the Web client.

Downloading, installing, and configuring the client
LoudPC is available free for a 15-day trial period by downloading the client and completing a three-part installation process. The first step installs the client software on your PC. The only configurable option at this stage is the location of the installed files. The second step involves configuring the client. This is where you specify your mail client—Outlook or Outlook Express, any network settings (Figure A), and general settings. Right now, this is simply one option—to have the LoudPC client start automatically.

Figure A
Network settings for the LoudPC client

Once the first two steps are complete, you will see a dialog box indicating that the third step—online setup—needs to be completed. This stage is straightforward as well. You’ll enter user information such as ID, password, and e-mail address, as well as the answer to a security question in case you forget your password. In Figure B, you can see a sample of this information, although I have omitted a couple of pieces for security reasons.

Figure B
User information and security question configuration

When you’ve entered this information, installation and configuration are complete. The LoudPC icon appears in the system tray.

To change what is accessible by the LoudPC client, right-click on the system tray icon and choose My Access Rights to open the dialog box shown in Figure C. In the Files tab, you can grant the client access to any folder. If you have drives mapped to network volumes with a drive letter, you can also provide access to those via the LoudPC client.

Figure C
LoudPC file and folder access rights

The remaining tabs are for Outlook access. In these tabs, you can restrict access to specific Outlook folders, prohibit users from composing e-mail remotely, and allow access to calendar items, among other things.

Share your stuff
LoudPC can also be configured to share items with other LoudPC users. By default, nothing is shared. To share e-mail, files, and calendars with other LoudPC users, right-click on the system tray icon and choose Sharing. In the Sharing dialog box, add the name of any LoudPC user you want to share your files with. In Figure D, you can see that I have chosen not to share my information with anyone else.

Figure D
Sharing your files

This sharing option may give you pause when you’re considering rolling this service out to users. They may not always understand the security implications of sharing their files, especially with people outside the company. LoudPC would do well to enable corporate account holders to restrict the use of this feature.

Using the service
With the client installed and configured, you can now log in to the LoudPC Web site and access the mail and folders you specified. Once you provide your user credentials and are verified, your e-mail will be opened up in a browser window, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
The LoudPC Web site in action

Click on the Files option on the left side of the screen to bring up the list of files from the locations that have been specified in the client.

Figure F
A list of files from a directory in My Documents

If you have installed the client on multiple PCs and linked them to your account, you will be able to access the files from those PCs simultaneously.