Help for the busy network blues

If you use Windows NT Server's Remote Access Service (RAS), you know how easily it lets remote users access your network. But when you start getting phone calls from those users about persistent busy signals on your server, you might wonder if success is worth the price. Enter NTP Software's RAS Manager. RAS Manager lets you impose limits on users and monitor remote access to a greater degree than you can with NT's standard RAS support. If you have half a dozen or more remote users per line, RAS Manager can make your life, and the lives of your remote users, much easier.

Installing RAS Manager
The installation of RAS Manager is fast and easy: You install it from CD-ROM when NT RAS is running. RAS Manager is an NT service (see Michael D. Reilly, "Windows NT Services," January 1998), and once you install it, you will find it in the Control Panel's Services applet. The RAS Manager for Domains shortcut is in the Administrative Tools folder. After you've installed RAS Manager, you still must use NT RAS management to add, change, or delete dial-up connections.

Configuring Global Settings
The initial RAS Manager configuration gives all users unlimited network access, just as standard NT RAS support does. You can control global access by using RAS Manager for Domains; however, it does not recognize NT groups or let you select multiple users when you change settings. RAS Manager can manage more than one NT domain, though.

You begin configuring global settings in RAS Manager with the system preferences, as Screen 1 shows. The settings include maximum number of concurrent sessions (the number of simultaneous connections a single-user account can support) and peak hours. You can set session limits and cumulative daily, weekly, and monthly limits in minutes, or you can let any setting remain unlimited.

Clicking Hours in the Set System Preferences window displays the Set Peak Hours dialog box, in Screen 2, page 102. You can set a peak-hour range for every day of the week, and you can set up to three peak-hour ranges each day. Granularity is 1 hour, and you must use the 24-hour system of telling time. The default time setting is 0900 to 1700 hours (i.e., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). You will usually find one range to be sufficient for your organization, but if you have remote users who call in early or late in the day, the additional range settings will let you accommodate them.

Clicking Logon To in the Set System Preferences window displays a dialog box that lets you specify a global list of up to eight workstations or servers that remote users can access. RAS Manager usually limits access to the dial-in server so that users cannot access workstations on the network.

The RAS Manager for Domains program does not cut users off without warning when their time on the network expires: It sends warning messages at predetermined intervals. The default settings for warning messages are 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 2 minutes before the end of a session. By selecting Set Warning Messages in the Options menu, you can change both the time at which each message is sent and the content of the message. If you have users with Windows 95 on their client machines, you must install the WinPopup program on those machines, or the users won't be able to see the RAS Manager warning messages.

Configuring User Settings
You can click Hours in the User RAS Properties window (as you see in Screen 3, page 102) to set a time range during which a particular user can call in to the network. Like the global peak-hours setting, the user setting offers three peak-hour ranges for each day of the week, with a granularity of 1 hour.

You can click Logon To to limit users' access to the server. For example, you can globally limit your users to one server through the Set System Preferences settings and let a particular user access additional servers through the User RAS Properties settings.

The Time Remaining option in the User RAS Properties window displays the amount of remaining access time (per day, per week, and per month) a user has. You can reset these values to provide the user with more or less remote access time.

Managing RAS Manager
After you've configured RAS Manager for your system, you don't need to perform additional management chores unless you add users or alter the default system settings. To add or delete users, you must use NT's User Manager for Domains. When you add users to the system, you can use RAS Manager to configure the RAS user settings or you can let the default settings cover new users.

RAS Manager can perform realtime monitoring of access time per user. RAS Manager records this information, which you can save to a database file or a comma-delimited text file, as Screen 4 shows. Unfortunately, no built-in statistical or graphical presentations of this information are available in the RAS Manager application. To perform additional analysis, you must export files that contain the raw connection information by user (you can export daily, weekly, and monthly statistics for any range of dates). You must export data manually.

Documentation and Technical Support
In general, RAS Manager's printed documentation is good. The export information in the product documentation is minimal but sufficient. The context-sensitive help is good, but I had difficulty locating specific information because cross-referencing is minimal. NTP's online product documentation is fair. I found the tech support description of system operation and potential installation problems helpful.

Do You Need RAS Manager?
For companies that must control use of fixed resources, RAS Manager can be a valuable tool. RAS Manager is most useful in limiting users' remote access during peak hours; remote users might not get all the online time they need in one session, but they will gain access to a server more easily with RAS Manager than without it. And RAS Manager requires no change in remote user interaction—all an administrator must do is notify users of the warning messages they will receive before RAS Manager automatically disconnects them. NTP Software could improve RAS Manager by supporting group management, but if you can manage your remote users with the global settings, you won't find the absence of group management functions a significant drawback.

RAS Manager for Windows NT 4.0
Contact: NTP Software 603-622-4400 or 800-226-2755, Web: http://www.ntpsoftware.com
Price: $495
System Requirements: Pentium PC Windows NT Server 4.0 1MB of additional RAM