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Running Remotely: Remote Control for Windows

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If you've ever had the experience of being bumped out of your office chair by a Help Desk technician who's trying to solve your problem, you might prefer one of the many "remote control" options that are available now. Rick Cook discusses some of the popular products, how they work, and why you need to give some serious thought to whether handing over control of your system is a good idea.
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Remote control is a godsend to Help Desks trying to troubleshoot tricky problems. It’s the next best thing to looking over the user’s shoulder. From a remote computer, a technician or administrator not only can see what’s happening on the user’s screen, but can manipulate the system via mouse and keyboard commands to solve the problem. This capability speeds things up and saves a lot of wear and tear on everyone’s nerves.

Of course, any software this powerful has to be chosen carefully. Not all the remote control programs out there are equally useful, and all of them have the ability to tear great, gaping holes in your security if they’re used unwisely.

Choices, Choices

There are two kinds of remote control programs:

  • True remote control (as we’re defining it here) allows access to the host system for troubleshooting, remote administration, and such. It’s typically used by technicians, administrators, and Help Desk workers.
  • Remote-working software is designed to let someone work with the computer from another location, much in the way that a terminal allows you to work with a remote computer. Such systems are best thought of as fancy terminal-emulation programs, and are most often used by the users assigned to the host systems.

Although the underlying technology may be the same in both of kinds of software, the two different styles of remote control programs tend to be quite different in practice, and it’s not a good idea to try to use one kind to do the job of the other.

At the very least, remote control software allows you to establish a connection between the user’s computer (called the host in the remote control business) and the helper’s computer (the guest). Through the link, the guest should be able to see what’s on the host’s screen and manipulate the host mouse and keyboard systems to give commands to the host. Typically there will also be a chat feature so the users of the host and guest systems can communicate in real time. In addition to basic remote control, some of the programs offer other useful features, such as the ability to inventory the host system’s hardware and software, and scripting to run processes automatically. The feature sets vary widely.

It’s not surprising that there are a lot of choices when it comes to remote control programs. First, the category has a history stretching back to the original IBM PC (if not before). Second, remote control programs are both useful and straightforward, which encourages programmers to write them.

Remote control software is available for free from a number of sources, both open source and built into Windows. Most systems management software also has at least limited remote control features. A number of commercial products are also available, specially designed for Help Desk and administrative uses. However, remote control programs differ widely in usability and suitability for an enterprise. This is particularly obvious in the areas of response times and security.

Part of the problem is that remote control is one of those features that are easy to do and difficult to do well. Hacking something together to let one computer control another is the work of a weekend. Coming up with a really functional, secure piece of software that can be used in the average enterprise is something else entirely.

None of the remote control options is really expensive as Windows system software goes, so it makes sense to make your choice on the basis of features, usability, and security, rather than by price.

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