As your organization grows, it’s likely that more of your
network’s users will work from remote locations: salespeople who take their
laptops on the road, executives who need to log on from hotels or home, telecommuters who do all of their work off-site, and so
forth. Thus it becomes an important function of your tech support department to
provide assistance to these remote users.

Even if all your employees do all of their work on company
property, as the company expands it becomes more difficult for support
personnel to personally visit the desk of user who have software problems. Those
users may be on a different floor or in a different building from the IT staff,
or even at a branch office located across town or across the country.

How do you provide help in the most efficient and cost
effective way when faced with the challenge of remote users? Let’s look some of
the more common solutions and the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Telephone support

The traditional method for supporting users remotely is over
the phone. Until recently, this was the way most help desks operated. Some users
are comfortable with this model and may be able to communicate their problems
coherently in a one-to-one voice conversation.

However, there are some major drawbacks. The support person
is severely handicapped by being unable to see what’s going on, having to rely
on the user to describe every action he takes, every dialog box, etc.

The cost of using the phone to provide support is another
issue worth considering–especially when the remote users are located in a
different city, state, or country. Long distance charges can add up. If
telephone support to distant users is necessary, the company should consider
implementing VoIP to lower the cost.

Even when long distance charges aren’t involved, telephone
support ties up lines within the organization that could be used for other
purposes.

Computer-based remote assistance

Using the IP network to provide assistance can lower cost
and make the experience less frustrating and more productive for both support
personnel and users. There are several different ways to do so.

Email/IM assistance

The most basic form of computer-based remote assistance
involves using e-mail or instant messaging applications for communications
between support personnel and users.

The advantages of using either of these methods instead of
the phone include:

  • No
    long distance charges
  • Ability
    to exchange files. For example, the user can send screenshots of the
    problem to support personnel, or the support person can send scripts or
    files the user can run to automatically fix some problems.
  • One
    support person may be able to simultaneously deal with multiple users,
    something that’s almost impossible with phone support.

The biggest disadvantage of e-mail is that responses may not
be immediate. The lag can result in lost productivity as the user waits for
instructions, and the support person can’t troubleshoot as effectively with
long lags between communications.

For that reason, an IM program is usually preferable.
Another advantage of IM is that many IM applications allow you to talk by voice
(if the computers have the appropriate hardware), giving you the advantages of
telephone communications along with the visual element and low cost.

Web-based assistance

Another way to provide assistance over the Internet is
through a Web site. The assistance web site can range from simple Help pages to
an interactive site by which users can chat with support personnel in real time
about their problems. It can also take the form of a discussion board, where
questions and answers are archived and available to all of the company’s users.
This way, problems that are commonly encountered can be solved once by support
personnel and the solutions accessed by subsequent users without having to tie
up a support person’s time.

An advantage of the Web-based assistance model is that it’s
not necessary for an e-mail or IM program to be installed on the user’s client
computer, and it can be used in an environment where IM and email protocols are
blocked by the firewall.

Microsoft Remote Assistance

For those users running Windows XP (and, once it’s released
and rolled out, Windows Vista), the built-in Remote Assistance application can
be used to request and get help. The user can initiate the help session by
inviting a support technician to help,

This is a big step up from telephone, e-mail/IM or Web-based
assistance because the support technician can actually see the computer screen
of the remote user and (with the user’s permission) take control of the remote
computer and perform tasks on it to fix the problem or visually demonstrate to
the user how to do so.

Windows Remote Assistance creates an encrypted connection
between the support person’s computer and the user’s computer. The helper must
have a password provided by the remote user in order to make the connection;
this prevents unauthorized persons from exploiting the feature to take over
others’ computers. For more information about using Remote Assistance in
Windows XP, see http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/helpandsupport/learnmore/remoteassist/intro.mspx.

In Windows Vista, the helper can respond to requests from
the user’s computer for administrative credentials when these are needed to
perform necessary tasks. However, the user must give permission for the helper
to do this, and the user can give that permission only if he/she has
administrative privileges.

It’s also interesting to note that Remote Assistance in
Windows XP (and Server 2003) support voice communications, but the version in
Vista does not.

To connect to a computer remotely and fix problems when the
user is not there, support personnel can use the XP or Vista Remote Desktop
feature, so long as that feature has been enabled (it is disabled by default) and
they know the user name and password for a user who has been authorized to
connect remotely. With Remote Assistance, both the user at the remote computer
and the helper can see the user’s screen. With remote desktop, the desktop is
not visible at the local computer when a remote user is connected to it.

In an enterprise environment where Windows domains are
implemented, you can configure a remote assistance policy to allow tech support
personnel to initiate a help session by sending an offer to the user. This
means the user doesn’t have to know how to invite the technician in order to
get help. The feature is turned on by using Group Policy (it’s off by default).
For information on how to change this policy setting, see KB article
308013 on Microsoft’s web site
.

Remote assistance for non-XP/Vista operating systems

If your users aren’t running Windows XP or Vista, there is
no built-in remote assistance feature. However, there are a number of third
party programs that can provide remote control functionality. For example:

  • RealVNC is
    open source remote control software that can run on Windows, Linux, Sun
    Solaris and HP-UX. It comes in three editions: a free edition, a personal
    edition for individual users and an enterprise edition that supports
    Windows authentication and includes powerful deployment tools.
  • Remote
    Desktop Control
    is targeted at the help desk market and allows support
    personnel to shutdown or reboot the remote
    machine. It requires installation of an admin module on the support
    person’s computer and a host module on the remote user’s computer.
  • DualDesk lets
    the user connect by clicking a link on a web site, in an email attachment
    or an online chat without preinstalling software
    on the remote computer. The technician can reboot and reconnect even if
    the remote system is running in safe mode or the user is not at the
    computer.

Outsourcing remote assistance services

Large organizations may find it more economical to outsource
remote assistance services to an off-site help desk call center or a company
that will take over running your on-site help desk. These companies use tools
similar to those described above. This eliminates the need to hire full time
help desk personnel and eases the load on your in-house IT department, making
it easier to provide 24 hour coverage.