Some days, even if you like your office, you just don’t want to be in it. On those days, happy is she (or he) who can get real work done, on a laptop, just about anywhere.
There are a number of different ways to go mobile. How you do it depends on your specific needs.
The most important concern, in my view, is security. Close behind is maintaining the integrity of The File. Laptops can be lost, stolen, or destroyed, so you need a contingency plan.
Before you go mobile, you must have a plan for backing up files on your laptop as well as files at the office. The File should stay together. At the office, you probably have one computer where all your clients’ files reside, and if you don’t, you should. When you work from a laptop, you need to make sure you don’t scatter The File.
One laptop for everything
This is probably the easiest option, but it really only works for solo practitioners.
Todays laptops are nearly as fast and just as capable as today’s desktops, but you can take them anywhere. As long as you have a good laptop, you can just use it as your only computer.
A few caveats. Any business or client files on a mobile laptop should be encrypted. All the major operating systems come with easy ways to encrypt files, or you can just use TrueCrypt, which works on Windows, OS X, and Ubuntu (as well as other flavors of Linux).
Equally important, know the limits of encryption. I use full-disk encryption on my laptop, but that means my file are not encrypted as soon as I enter that password. As a result, I always shut down my laptop before I move it, ensuring the files are safe if I lose it en route.
If you use the built-in encryption in Windows, OS X, or Ubuntu, your files are un-encrypted whenever you are logged in. This is especially important for MacBook users, who often simply close the lid and go. You have to log out, at least, in order to re-encrypt your files. Same goes for OS X and Ubuntu users.
Sync your files
This is what I do. I have a file server at my office and a laptop at home. At least once a day, I use Unison, a cross-platform file sync utility, to sync all my business and client files, so that there is an exact copy on both machines.
For me, this works great, although just like using a laptop as your only computer, I do not think it would not work well in an office with more than one person who needs access to files.
There are several ways to access your files remotely. All (obviously) depend on internet access. Access to the internet is not, unfortunately, ubiquitous, although there are many ways to get access from nearly everywhere, and several technologies in the works, or that are just starting to become available, make this a real possibility in the future.
For now, though, remote access is limited by internet access. Further, secure remote access is limited by the security permissions at the internet access point you are using. I find that some hotels, for example, lock down the ports I need to use in order to access my server, leaving me with internet access but no remote access.
Remote desktop access.
Remote desktop access allows you to see your office computer’s desktop as if you were sitting in front of your computer. With a fast connection at both ends, this can work very well. You can work from home or the coffee shop as if you were sitting at your desk, and the files never leave the office. All the operating systems have remote desktop access (RDP or VNC) built in, but some prefer software like GoToMyPC or BackToMyMac, which simplify the process.
With a slow connection, however, remote desktop access can be agonizing.
Security is still important, as well. You should not connect over an unsecured connection, but use an encrypted connection or SSH tunnel to make sure nobody can listen in on your session.
Virtual Private Network
A VPN is a very common way to access files hosted on a separate file server. It is not really designed for use if all you have at work is a desktop.
However, a VPN allows you to connect to your office network as if you were using a computer in the office. You simply mount the remote directories as if you were working locally on the network. It works great, is easy to secure, and means you are accessing the same files as everyone else.
Remote file access (through a web interface, SFTP, or SSH)
You can also access the files on your server or office desktop by downloading them and working on them locally. In order to work on a file, you have to download the file, and in order to keep The File intact, you have to make sure to upload the file when you are finished working on it.
Remote file access is, obviously, clumsier than a VPN, but can work well for someone who reliably puts files back on the server.
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)