While Windows Server 2012 Essentials provides excellent connectivity to your content and other server resources from within the local network, many users will be disconnected from that network much of the time too. How can you access your home office or small business network from the road?

The key to this functionality is a set of Essentials 2012 features that are collectively named Anywhere Access. This compromises a web front end to the PCs and server, your shared folders, and media collection, as well as VPN functionality which lets you remotely access your office network as if you were physically there.

Enabling Anywhere Access

Like many Essentials 2012 features, Anywhere Access needs to be enabled before it is available. You can do this from the Setup area of the Home tab in Dashboard. Or, also from Dashboard, just navigate to Settings, Anywhere Access.

Either way, you’re presented with a wizard that walks you through the steps required to configure the Anywhere Access features. Depending on your needs, this may be more complex than expected.

That’s because you need to connect your server to a publicly-available Internet domain name (like microsoft.com, though of course that one’s taken) for Anywhere Access to work. You can choose a domain name that you already own, or you can set up a new domain name: If you choose the latter, you can choose a xxxx.remotewebaccess.com address that will work fine for home office users but be unacceptable for anyone with an actual Internet presence.

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Once the (Internet) domain name is set up, you configure Anywhere Access. This involves choosing which of the two Anywhere Access features you wish to enable, VPN (virtual private network) and/or Remote Web Access.

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I’ll discuss those two features in a moment. After you’ve chosen, you determine whether permissions for Anywhere Access are applicable to all current and future users, though as the wizard notes you can always toggle these permissions at any time through the Users tab in Dashboard. (At least for standard users: Administrators always have Anywhere Access privileges.) Just right-click the user in question and choose View the account properties; then, navigate to the Anywhere Access tab in the resulting window.

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After that, the wizard will set up the Anywhere Access features you enabled, including the VPN and the web site. It will then configure your router to forward external requests for these services to the Essentials 2012. That way, when you attempt to access your office network remotely (via VPN) or the Remote Web Access web site (from a web browser), everything will work as expected.

This last part of the wizard requires you to have a fairly modern router, which is to say one that can be programmatically controlled via UPnP (Universal Plug and Play). If your router is not compatible, you’ll see the following error message and will need to manually configure port forwarding for this usage through the router’s administration web site. How you do that of course varies wildly from router to router, but Microsoft supplies some decent web-based instructions. (They’re from Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011, but still work for our purposes here.)

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I had to go through this with the lousy Actiontec router that FIOS supplied, if you’re curious. If you can’t get this working with your own router, you can use LogMeIn Hamachi, which is a free VPN, and LogMeIn Free or LogMeIn Pro for other remote access features.

Accessing Anywhere Access features

As noted earlier, Anywhere Access includes two components, VPN and Remote Web Access.

VPN allows you to access network resources when you’re away from the office. The theory here is that your office’s local network is what’s called a “private” network, whereas the Internet is a public network. With VPN, you can tunnel into your private network from the Internet. That way you can do things like access Essentials 2012’s server folders (or shared folders on connected PCs) through Network Explorer, or access the server through Remote Desktop Connection or the Dashboard, just a bit more slowly than if you were really there on the same network. VPN is the next best thing to being there.

VPN is available in all Windows Server 2012 versions, but it’s set up and configuration is automated for you in Essentials 2012, making it a heck of a lot easier to use.

Remote Web Access is unique to Essentials 2012, and a friendlier, web-based way of presenting network resources to users who are away from the network.

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Available services from this interface include:

Remote desktop access to the server and any correctly configured PCs. You can click the Connect button next to the server or any connected (and awake) PC to access it via Remote Desktop Connection.

Shared folders. You can access any server folder shares using an FTP-like web interface that lets you upload and download files from the road.

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Media Library. If your media library is being shared as I documented in Windows Server 2012 Essentials Tip: Enable and Configure Media Sharing, you can access your shared pictures, music, and videos from outside your network, and do such things as play photo slideshows, music, or videos, all from within a web browser.

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Windows Server 2012’s remote access features are pretty complete, assuming you can get through that Set up Anywhere Access wizard successfully. That shouldn’t be an issue for most people, but I’ve struggled for years with similar wizards in predecessor products, and have never successful configured the FIOS router for this purpose. Clearly it’s time for an upgrade.