Having the ability to remotely control client computers can be an extremely valuable help desk tool. Not only do you save commute time to and from the client’s office, you also avoid the headaches of having to talk the end user through a diagnostic and troubleshooting process over the phone.

Unfortunately, remote access software can be very expensive. For example, Symantec’s pcAnywhere has a price tag of about $179. While this may not initially sound like a lot, if you decided to roll it out to every user in a 1,000-user organization, the cost would be a whopping $179,000 (unless you got a volume discount).

My point is that this and other popular remote access software packages can be unavailable to all but the wealthiest organizations. Fortunately, you can save a lot of money by using Microsoft’s NetMeeting as an alternative. In fact, the best thing about NetMeeting is that it’s free.

Just a personal preference
The first question that may come to mind is why anyone would prefer to pay to use pcAnywhere for remote access when NetMeeting is free? PcAnywhere is just a personal preference. It’s a little bit easier to install and fine-tune, but both products are good. In fact, depending on your organization’s geographical layout and hardware capabilities, NetMeeting may actually be a better solution than pcAnywhere because of some of its extra features.

Using NetMeeting
NetMeeting allows remote desktop sharing in a manner that’s similar to pcAnywhere. However, NetMeeting goes way beyond simple remote control functions. To illustrate how NetMeeting can be used as a truly effective help desk tool, consider the following situation.

A problem is reported; a session is initiated
Suppose for a moment that an end user is having some trouble with Microsoft Office. Normally, in such a case, the user would fill out a service request form and submit the form to the help desk’s e-mail account. If you’re using NetMeeting, though, the form could actually contain an embedded link that initiates a NetMeeting session. Therefore, when the help desk staff receives the form, they can read about the problem and then click the link to initiate a session with the user.

When a session has been established, the help desk staff will be able to speak to the person who’s having trouble by using NetMeeting’s conferencing feature. If both parties’ computers have video cameras, NetMeeting will establish a video teleconference between the two parties.

It’s like looking over the user’s shoulder
Once the help desk person has spoken to the user who has requested help, it’s time to take a look at the problem. The user can tell NetMeeting to either share a single application or provide the help desk with the ability to remotely control the entire system. As you can see, NetMeeting has some security in place so that the end user must ultimately grant the help desk staff permission to perform an override. This prevents someone from toying around with the system without the end user’s knowledge. Additionally, NetMeeting can be configured to work with certificates so that the end user can be absolutely sure that they are actually dealing with help desk staff.

Let’s update those files
Now, suppose that after looking at the Microsoft Office problem, the help desk staff realizes that the user doesn’t have the latest service pack. If the service pack isn’t already available online, the help desk staff can send the file to the user through NetMeeting’s file transfer feature. Once the help desk staff has transferred the file to the user, the help desk staff can remotely execute the file to install the service pack and thus solve the user’s problem. Of course, the help desk staff and the end user are in constant communication during this entire process. Therefore, if the user has questions, the support staff can address those questions during the repair process.

Get NetMeeting
As you can see, NetMeeting is a powerful tool that’s ideal for help desk operations in small companies or in organizations that have a wide geographic base.

How do you get NetMeeting? You can download NetMeeting directly from Microsoft. NetMeeting is also included with Windows 2000. If you decide to use the version that comes with Windows 2000, though, you’ll still need to go to the NetMeeting Web site to download the latest NetMeeting service pack.

Give me the remote

Few help desk tools are more useful than a remote control utility. Whether provided by pcAnywhere, NetMeeting, or SMS, the ability to see what the users see and actually control their machines can cut call times dramatically. Does your IT support organization use remote control technology? Do users ever express concern over IT being able to control their PCs? How do you handle such questions? Post a comment to this article or send us a note and share your experiences.