How do I... Configure TightVNC for remote access?

Virtual Network Computing (VNC) is the remote administrative tool of choice for many IT professionals. IT consultant Erik Eckel explains how to configure TightVNC, the more robust version of VNC, for secure access to remote systems.

This article is also available as a TechRepublic download.

Numerous remote administration and connectivity tools exist to help support technicians and IT administrators troubleshoot, maintain, and access systems in different locations. Some are easy to use and require no firewall configuration. Others possess expensive and potentially prohibitive licensing requirements, while delivering more advanced functionality.

Often, VNC—which stands for Virtual Network Computing—is the remote administrative tool of choice for IT professionals. In its earlier iterations, VNC offered a simple, relatively straightforward method of affordably implementing fairly secure access to remote systems.

Over time, the open source community revised and improved the remote access tool. Developer Constantin Kaplinsky, in particular, maintained a project dedicated to delivering an improved VNC remote administration tool that addressed VNC's shortcomings. The result is a more capable application known as TightVNC.

Where to get TightVNC

Advertised as an OS-independent client/server package enabling remote network access to graphical desktops, TightVNC is a free tool organizations can use to solve remote connectivity needs. The software is distributed under the GNU General Public License. The self-installing Windows package can be downloaded from Linux, UNIX, and Java (viewer only) versions are also available.

TightVNC enhancements

Among the enhancements in TightVNC not found in standard VNC implementations are the ability to transfer files from the local system to the remote workstation (referred to as the server, in VNC parlance) or vice versa and adjustable compression levels to better mate connection speeds with the work being performed via the remote connection.

Other improvements include improved cursor handling (cursor movements are all processed locally to prevent performance issues), optimization for slower Internet connections, JPEG compression enabling better display performance, Web browser improvements that support up to 24-bit color modes, tightened security through the use of two passwords (one for full control and another for read-only access), and automatic SSH connectivity within UNIX.

Installing TightVNC

To install TightVNC on the workstation or server you wish to access remotely, begin by downloading the self-installing TightVNC package. Once you have the installation file ready (the current version at the time of this writing is tightvnc-1.2.9-setup.exe), follow these steps:

  1. Double-click the executable file. The Welcome To TheTightVNC Setup Wizard will appear. Click Next.
  2. Review the terms of the GNU General Public License, then click Next to acknowledge your acceptance of those terms.
  3. Specify the location where you wish to place the application's files and then click Next.
  4. Specify whether you wish to perform a full installation, a compact installation, or a custom installation. In this example, we'll perform a full installation by accepting the default settings and clicking Next.
  5. Specify whether the Setup program should create a Start Menu folder and the name you wish to use for the folder and then click Next.
  6. Configure additional settings. By default .vnc files are associated with TightVNC Viewer. If you want the system to serve as a VNC server, or host system, check the box for Register TightVNC Server as a system service. Then, click Next. The Ready To Install Screen will appear (Figure A).

Figure A

The TightVNC Setup program enables registering TightVNC Server As A System Service during installation.
  1. Click Install to set up TightVNC. The application will install itself, and then you will see the Completing TheTightVNC Setup Wizard.
  2. Click Finish to complete TightVNC installation. On systems configured to operate as servers, or hosts for remote connections, it's also helpful to reboot Windows.

Configuring the TightVNC host

Once TightVNC is installed, follow these steps to configure the host system:

  1. Ensure TightVNC is set to start as a system service. Doing so ensures TightVNC is active should you wish to connect remotely, even if no user is present or sitting at the remote workstation. The Register As A System Service option can be selected when installing TightVNC, as shown in the previous steps.
  2. Configure a password for TightVNC sessions. You can enter the password by double-clicking the VNC icon from within the Windows System Tray and specifying the password in the Incoming Connections section of the Current User Properties dialog box (Figure B).

Figure B

Use the WinVNC: Current User Properties dialog box to configure connection options.
  1. Specify additional settings, such as whether you wish to disable the use of empty passwords, enable loopback connections, and log session information to WinVNC logs, by clicking the Advanced button in the WinVNC: Current User Properties dialog box. Once you’ve configured settings as you wish, click Apply, then click OK to close all open windows (Figure C).

Figure C

Advanced TightVNC connection options are configured using the Current User Advanced Properties menu.
  1. Confirm the Windows Firewall (and any other software- and hardware-based firewalls) are configured to allow the TightVNC traffic. In Windows, click Start | Control Panel | Windows Firewall and select the Exceptions tab. Confirm that the WinVNC options are checked; otherwise, Windows Firewall will block your connection attempts.

    On other firewalls, port 5900 may be required to enable VNC traffic to pass properly. (Other VNC implementations sometimes use ports 5500 and 5800.) For best security, administrators should test configurations to determine the minimum ports that need be opened to enable the connection to work within their specific environments.

Connecting to a TightVNC host

Connect to a TightVNC-enabled remote host by installing TightVNC on a local system and following these steps:

  1. Open a TightVNC Viewer on the local system by clicking Start | All Programs | TightVNC | TightVNC Viewer. The Connection Details window will appear (Figure D). Enter the name of the remote VNC server to which you wish to connect. If you’ve changed the default port, you can specify the new port using this format:

Figure D

Enter the IP address of the system to which you wish to connect within the Connection Details screen.
  1. Click Options to configure additional settings. The Connection Options dialog box appears (Figure E). Configure any required options (such as hiding the remote cursor and restricting pixels to 8 bits on slow networks), then click OK. You’ll be returned to the Connection Details screen. Click OK to connect to the remote system.

Figure E

Configure connection options using the settings provided in this dialog box.
  1. Enter the session password configured within the remote system’s WinVNC: Current User Properties menu and click OK. The remote system’s screen will then appear on the local system, thereby providing the ability to view and configure the remote system using the local workstation or server (Figure F).

Figure F

Once the proper session password is supplied, the remote workstation’s desktop appears on the local system.