Meet the challenge of a growing remote user base

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

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

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.

About Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox