How to manage and support your workstations from your desktop

August 24, 2006 at 4:02 pm 1 comment

For many small companies, the number of workstations around the building doesn’t ever reach the size to justify advanced IT staff to implement a well managed Windows domain. And as a result, support and management of all of the computers on the network becomes tedious. Generally, somebody has to run around to each computer to install new software or updates or to fix problems or help other users achieve the various things they need to do. Even if your company does implement some more advanced technologies to take care of installations and updates, support often requires somebody to physically get up and go to the relevant workstation to help out.

However, there are a number of ways to get out of this sort of bind. Firstly, most Windows XP systems (and some Windows 2000 systems) are capable of being managed using RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) or Windows Terminal Services.  For Windows users, check out what Microsoft has to say about using Remote Desktop. As a linux user, I tend to use rdesktop as my client to connect to Windows computers running Terminal Services.

Using Remote Desktop, you can login to your Windows computer from anywhere on the network and access it as if you were sitting in front of it. This is exceedingly useful if you simply need to do a quick install or run Windows update, or if you just want to change a few settings. However, it is not that useful when it comes to support, because this system doesn’t allow you to see the screen of anybody already logged onto the remote system. For this, I generally use VNC, which is a free open source application that allows you to actually take over somebody’s session remotely.

There are a host of Windows VNC servers and clients. Generally I use TightVNC because it works, and it works well. VNC also works on Macintosh computers and on Linux workstations, which means that no matter what platform is being used in the organisation, I will be able to access each and every workstation without hassle. Most importantly, when somebody calls me up to tell me that they have an error message on their screen or that they need to do something but don’t know how, I can help them without leaving my desk. I simply open my VNC client and connect to their computer and I’m in. I can see everything on their screen, and I can take over the mouse and keyboard to show them how to solve their problem.

I’ve been using VNC for remote support for well on five years now, and highly recommend it in a support environment. For my own network, I’ve written a neat little python wrapper application that scans the network for computers running VNC and then uses nmb (from Windows File Sharing) to list the computers by name. As a result, each support phone call simply requires me to click on the relevant computer name, enter a password and I’m in.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, give it a try!

Warning: Because VNC actually allows someone to remotely take over your machine and to watch what you are doing, it is highly inadvisable to use it without a firewall. You may also find some antivirus applications report it as potentially harmful, on the grounds that if it is installed without you knowing it could mean that somebody else is watching your every action on your computer.

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