What is virtual network computing?

Developed in the 1990s by researchers at the Olivetti & Oracle Research Laboratory at Cambridge, UK, virtual network computing was envisioned as an “ultra-thin client system” that would give users remote access not only to applications and data but also to a desktop environment.


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“VNC thus provides mobile computing without requiring the user to carry any device whatsoever,” it creators wrote in a 1998 paper

Thin clients have come and gone, and nearly everyone today is carrying a mobile device anyway, but because of the lightweight Remote Frame Buffer protocol on which it is built, VNC has found a large niche today as a remote access tool.

“It is the simplicity of this protocol that makes VNC so powerful,” the developers wrote. “Unlike other remote display protocols such as the X Windows System and Citrix’s ICA, the VNC protocol is totally independent of the operating system, windowing system and applications.”

AT&T acquired the Cambridge lab in 1999 and halted research in 2002, and four of the developers (Tristan Richardson, Andy Harter, James Weatherall and Andy Hopper) formed RealVNC to take the open source software in-house and develop it commercially. Open source versions remain available.

VNC consists of server software installed on a remote computer that will be shared, and client viewer software installed on another computer that will access the desktop. The viewer connects to a port on the server, and the RFB protocol enables access to and remote control of a graphical user interface. Although the protocol can help reduce overhead and latency, a broadband connection is required for it to work well.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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