Let your Help desk efficiently handle software-related support calls

For end users, calling the Help desk when their PC isn't working properly is like calling the doctor's office when they're sick: They expect their problem to be solved almost as soon as the phone is answered. But that rarely happens: The Help desk staff usually needs to pass the problem on to another IT staff member who's busily running from office to office dealing with a long list of support calls. Obviously, hardware problems require onsite attention, but software-related calls often don't—if you equip your Help desk with remote control software.

Although remote control software has been around for some time, I still hear about companies that haven't implemented it. That surprises me, considering the emphasis on IT department efficiency these days. So after I read about Windows XP's Remote Assistance feature, I decided to give it a try and share my findings.

Remote Assistance uses XP Terminal Services to let two computers share a desktop. Unfortunately, this approach means that Remote Assistance will work only with another system that's running XP. When an XP end user needs expert help, the user requests remote assistance from the Help desk (or from another user) through Windows Messenger or through email by launching the Remote Assistance applet from the Start menu.

When a Lab staff member sent me an email requesting remote assistance, the Remote Assistance applet let him use a password to protect the invitation and set an expiration time (from 1 minute to 30 days) for me to accept the invitation. This feature helps prevent unauthorized users from gaining control of the workstation. Had the staffer sent the invitation by using Windows Messenger, which authenticates the sender through Microsoft .NET Messenger Service, no password or expiration would have been necessary. You can set a default expiration for all Remote Assistance invitations in the Control Panel System Properties applet.

The staff member called me to tell me the password to use to respond to his invitation. About 20 seconds after I entered the password, a Remote Assistance window opened on my display. The staff member's desktop appeared in the right pane, with a smaller chat window on the left and a toolbar on top. As we worked, I clicked a button on the toolbar to request that the user give me control of his machine. After he clicked OK, I could do anything on his computer that I could have done if I had been sitting at it.

Other buttons let you transfer files and even speak with the user. An option in System Properties lets you prevent a user from sharing desktop control should that capability present too great a security risk. Another option disables Remote Assistance.

I used Remote Assistance over LAN and high-speed Internet connections. Although performance is much slower over a dial-up link, Remote Assistance is still usable, especially if users reduce their computer's color depth and resolution settings.

For XP users, Remote Assistance is convenient and provides the capabilities and security features that your IT department needs. If you aren't yet using XP, try one of the several available third-party products, such as AT&T Laboratories Cambridge's free (and good) Virtual Network Computing (VNC), available at http://www.uk.research.att.com/vnc/download.html. Either way, you can no longer justify inefficient handling of software-related support calls.