Nov 27 2007

4 Help Desk Tools for Troubleshooting Remote Users

Check out four tools that will let the help desk troubleshoot remote users.

Ten years ago, many managers would have scoffed, winced, or possibly even laughed at the idea of allowing many of their subordinates to telecommute. But in an age of inexpensive and reliable notebook computers, affordable broadband connections, unlimited mobile phone calling plans and digital document management, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for even the most penny-wise of decision-makers to argue against telework.

As more businesses embrace and empower this new mobile workforce, IT departments must remain adaptive, flexible and even inventive if they expect to meet and satisfy the many new challenges that inevitably accompany the physical constraints of supporting remote users. Consider these four tools and discover how telework can make life easier on your help desk, too.

1 Sitekeeper — Systems Management Software
Developer: Diskeeper Corporation

Many IT departments will support more than a few portable systems, and in some situations, unless a remote end user has a problem with his or her machine, technicians will rarely see it. This often results in support personnel encountering precious few opportunities to check in on a machine’s status to make sure that it is healthy (receiving critical updates and patches; not loaded with spyware), and more important, not loaded with unauthorized applications. No IT manager wants to learn that licensing is out of compliance through a Business Software Alliance audit. Because of this, every IT department needs to have some way to stay on top of what’s going on with its mobile workstations even if they can’t physically get to them.

That’s why I recommend Sitekeeper, an application offered by Diskeeper (formerly Executive Software), which not only can scan and collect software inventories on user machines (local and remote), but can also alert administrators when a system is in need of Microsoft critical updates — helping to spotlight at-risk machines. Sitekeeper also boasts a feature that can be used to deploy those missing patches or install software packages silently over the network to target machines without end-user interaction or supervision from the network administrator.

CDW Price: $39.99

2 WinAudit — PC Audit Software
Developer: Parmavex Services

Having a clear picture of a given user’s hardware configuration can prove crucial when considering hardware and software upgrades. While machines local to you are easy enough to look at, remote users can present a greater challenge, and without an efficient means to collect an inventory, determining resources could prove to be the most painful part of any type of upgrade.

Does a user have room for more memory? Is the processor fast enough to handle a new application? What about available disk space? Having a solution in place to put you in the know is one of the most rewarding investments any IT professional can make.

WinAudit is a freeware PC audit program, running an 800-kilobyte self-contained executable file, that will by default display additional information: what printers are installed on the system, what drivers are installed and their running states, programs and processes and their running states, and perhaps most helpful, “Startup Programs” — meaning not just things in the Startup group, but every process launched during startup using Registry’s Run keys. This is a great way to spotlight processes that shouldn’t be there — such as viruses and malware — and the ability to have this information presented in a one-step PC audit is a real treat.

Does your company currently allow employees to telework?

• 43% We have several employees that telework
• 40% On rare occasions
• 10% Never
• 7% We have a growing interest in telework

Does your company monitor network usages for employees who telework?

• 65% No
• 18% Yes
• 16% No, but we’re considering it
• 1% Don’t know

Source: 287 BizTech readers

While WinAudit is not as robust as Sitekeeper, which specializes in software inventories, patch management and software deployment, it offers an abundance of critical information when you need it in a few simple clicks.


3 Windows Vista/XP Built-In Remote Assistance
Developer: Microsoft Corporation (standard Windows XP/Vista component)

Resist that temptation to buy a familiar third-party remote management application for remote support without first taking a good look at Windows XP/Vista’s built-in Remote Assistance tool. Remote Assistance offers IT professionals the ability to connect to a client’s machine and control it as though they were sitting in front of the keyboard and mouse. Remote Assistance is secure, because invitations are required in order for anyone to connect to a given host machine, so you don’t have to worry about clients being accessed without prior authorization.

Want more security? A lesser known fact about Windows Remote Assistance is that it can be customized — through Group Policy — to allow incoming connections only from machines behind the same firewall. So, as long as users are connected via a virtual private network, your IT department will still be able to access them. Remote Assistance runs as fluidly as, if not better than, many of its competitors, and it offers a standard means of connection with guaranteed compatibility, because it is native to its operating system. Best of all, it’s free.

Included with Windows XP/Vista

4 Ad-Aware SE Enterprise Edition — Antispyware
Developer: Lavasoft

Inside a corporate network, the average desktop computer leads a pretty uneventful life. These machines are typically behind a firewall and a corporate gateway, which, statistically, more often than not are also running content-filtering software. The end users of these workstations are constantly subjected to the prying eyes of their peers and managers and are typically unlikely to take risks such as browsing to gambling sites or other unapproved destinations.

Portable devices are a different story altogether and subject to threats that desktops typically are not. Many users take them everywhere they go: sometimes to hotels or coffee shops on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and sometimes home to have unsanctioned (and possibly dangerous) software loaded on them in their users’ downtime. Sometimes they are loaned to friends or family members. Because of this, many companies employ centralized antispyware solutions to keep their remote user machines healthy.

Ad-Aware SE Enterprise is one such product. Not only can it be loaded onto remote users’ machines through a centralized administrative console, but it also runs constantly in the background, providing real-time protection against infection. Also of note is Ad-Aware’s ability to scan and clean a target system on demand via the centralized console. This feature can be invaluable should a remote user find that the system has somehow become compromised by spyware. Instead of IT staffers having to suffer through the time-consuming task of connecting to a machine bogged down with 100 percent CPU usage to clean it, they can clean it first remotely and connect afterward to do any additional clean up.

CDW Price: $32.99

IT Takeaway

Thanks to these leaps forward in technology, yesterday’s cubicle has been replaced by a virtual war room for each and every mobile user, giving them more resources than ever before — no matter where they find themselves, and in some cases at a lower cost to their companies in return.

Still, you’ll want to find remote support tools that:

• Inventory end-user systems to keep track of corporate resources and remain current on software patches and upgrades
• Access remote desktops without having to download additional software to get into the end-user machine
• Centralize updates and software downloads from the corporate office

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