Remote Access Utilities

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on Feb 28, 2012

Issues often arise with surveillance systems located far away. The problem is that it may take more time to travel to the site than to actually fix the issue. Worse, the end user onsite may have a hard time understanding your instructions over the phone. It would be easier to just show them first. In these situations, Remote Access Utilities are very useful technology for integrators and manufacturers to use.

Remote access utilities allow a computer to connect to another computer from a remote location, and 'see' what that computer is doing. There are a variety of these solutions available in the market, and thanks to the 'traditional IT marketplace' driving development, some are considered mature and reliable technologies. In this update, we examine the most commonly used remote support utilities types and compare some attributes of each. 

Common types of Remote Server Access Utilities

The two most common types are:

  • Classic: Remote Desktop Utility (furnished with Microsoft OS)
  • Modern:Browser Based Utilities 

Saavy integrators will find that first pass technical support, small reconfiguration tasks, and system health checking are all efficently handled by these utilities, especially the browser based ones. Other types and methods of remote support utilities exist, but we have limited this update to a general comparasion of the major types being used.

Remote Desktop

Remote desktop is most oftenly used for computers you directly control / administrate over long periods of time. This is because it needs to be manually setup by a skilled technician. The main benefit is the deeper control it provides. The main distadvantge is the difficulty in setting it up for one off support calls.

Remote desktop is typically 'free' for many computers running Microsoft Windows based Operating Systems. 'Remote Desktop', commonly abbreviated 'RDP', is installed by default on 'Professional' and 'Server' versions of software since WindowsXP. The feature is also included with "Vista and Windows 7' versions of the operating system. 

Advantages of Remote Desktop include:

  • Free
  • Already installed on most Windows machines
  • Most client services will transmit through session transparently 
  • Supports native video card resolution
  • Supports audio transmission

Disadvatages of Remote Desktop include:

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  • Only supports Win OS machines
  • No multiple monitors are supported (Only primary remote client monitor is viewable)
  • Only one active session at a time (Existing user must log off)
  • Every user is a unique user session (Remote client cannot see what you are doing)
  • No web interface
  • No SSL support
  • Requires detailed configuration for use

This free remote support utility is widely available for use, but is limited by the rather heavy technical involvement of the remote user. The fact the remote user has to log out and cannot see what technical support is doing in realtime is also a noted disadvantage. The integrator may find this remote support utility as inexpensive and convienent but too limited for use in every situation.

Brower Based

The trend today is clearly for browser based remote access utilities. If a customer has a problem, they can quickly be setup to connect to PCs around the world. Overwhelmingly, VMS manufacturers use them to speed up support calls.

For those not familiar with these tools, here's a vendor's 90 second demo that overviews what happens:

Browser based products use webrowsers as a 'universal client'. The products in this market segment include GoToAssist, FogCreek Copilot, WebEx Remote Support [link no longer available], and TeamViewer. Each of those programs offer the same basic functionality, but are optimized to perform specific functions more easily. For example, it is possible to use a license of 'GoToMeeting' (a webinar hosting tool) for supporting a remote install (via reversing the presenter), but less end-user configuration or reversing procedures are necessary when using a program like 'GoToAssist' for this purpose. These 'browser based' utilities differs from 'Remote Desktop' in some significant ways:

Advantages of browser based utilities:

  • Web browser based, operable across many different platforms
  • Minimal remote user configuration required to initiate session
  • The end user can see what you are doing while you are logged in
  • Resolution support, color rendering is accurate to remote machine
  • Supports Audio transmission
  • Multi-monitor support is possible
  • Can be configured to encrypt transmission
  • SSL is supported

Disadvatages of browser based utilities:

  • Not free
  • It requires a piece of software overhead to be downloaded on remote machines before use
  • Lagginess on crowded internet connections or taxed machines
  • Rights on user machine are determined by user's profile (no AD support)

This type of utility does not have some of the limitations of 'remote desktop'. For example, thse typically require very little remote technical configuration to initiate. The process for engaging support is as easy as navigating to a webpage and typing in a unique session ID. The remote user has the full benefit of seeing what support is doing in realtime, and controls can be shared back and forth. Initiating a support session is a rather nimble process that does not take much time.

The primary disadvantage of this method is that it costs money. Several popular platforms charge a one-time flat liscense fee, and others charge 'subscription' fees for every month you use the product. Those prices can vary anywhere from one-time fees of several thousand dollars [link no longer available], to monthly fees of several hundred dollars. An interesting offering among fee based utilities is Fog Creek's CoPilot that can be purchased for $5.00 USD per day. Monthly subscription plans are available for this remote support-focused utility, but the casual user can buy the ability only when needed.

Integrators will find that the adoption of a Remote Server Access Utility a great benefit in addressing far-flung technical service support requests.  These utilities are broadly used by many technology companies, including the manfacturers of VMS products. Integrators and end-users alike will benefit from the flexibility of these remote support tools.

Feedback?

Do you make frequent use of these utilities? Do you have a strong preference to a particular product? Why?  Take some time and share your experiences.  Other users appreciate your feedback!

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