By Joe Stoddard. It's noon on Friday, and the company's project manager copies an important spreadsheet from the network file server to her laptop before heading out to the jobsite. Meanwhile, the president of the company returns from lunch and spends the rest of the day updating the same spreadsheet on his personal computer. Monday morning, the project manager shows up and saves her copy back to the file server, effectively wiping out all the work the company president did on Friday afternoon.

If that sounds familiar, it's time to take a look at remote access and file synchronization/document control products. Coupled with the small-office network we set up last month (see "Get Networked"), these products go a long way toward eliminating file management headaches. Use these suggestions as appropriate as your company moves forward on a networking project:

Synchronize a laptop with a desktop computer. If all the company has is a laptop and a desktop computer to synchronize, Peer Software's Save-N-Sync is a good, inexpensive solution. It lets the company synchronize any two drives, folders, or files so they can appear in Windows Explorer. The product starts at $29 for a bare-bones personal version. If the company has multiple users, Peer Software also produces PeerSync. At $299, PeerSync adds features that will synchronize the two machines every time a user logs on or off the network and can handle multiple source-target combinations automatically.

Check-In Time. If the company has multiple users working with the same critical project files, synchronizing between two machines is not enough. The problem is that many document management packages that service multiple users can cost in excess of $100,000. Nemetschek North America, the same company that produces the popular VectorWorks CAD, also makes Revision Master, a reasonably priced construction document control package based on the check-in, check-out approach. This product works by creating a library of project files. When a user checks out a file, it's locked until he checks it back in. Revision Master also maintains older versions of files that users can access on demand, with no fear of overwriting the most recent version. In addition, a log is created that lets document creators track who did what, when. Revision Master is $179 per user or $449 for a five-user license.

Connect via a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN lets users securely access shared files and folders on an office network from anywhere company users can access the Internet. Not that long ago, VPNs required advanced technical knowledge, a stack of specialized equipment, and an army of geeks to keep it running but today all a company needs is a router that can support a VPN. For example, the $100 Linksys BEFVP41 allows up to 30 simultaneous connections from remote users and can be configured in minutes from any Web browser by a novice.

Use remote access software and services. These products let users take control and actually run programs on a remote PC just as if they were sitting in front of it. Most also feature a file transfer utility so users can grab a few files to work on if they can't stay connected; the best ones offer some degree of document management as well. LapLink Gold ($99) and Symantec's PCAnywhere($199) are the best examples of installed remote access software, and LapLink Everywhere ($10/mo) and GoToMyPC ($20/mo) are Web-based services.

My advice: Don't buy more than you need, but check features carefully to make sure the product/service will perform as advertised.

Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the building industry. Reach him at