Thursday, November 10, 2011

Remote control options

If (like me) you find yourself as the default tech support provider for friends and family you've no doubt wondered about remote desktop software - VNC, RDP, Apple remote desktop, or any of the paid-for managed services (Go To Assist, LogMeIn etc).

I think there are several things to bear in mind;
  1. NAT routers in the way? If you're merely using remote desktop to go between machines on the same LAN then this isn't an issue but if you have to take control of your Mum's laptop and you're both behind routers then you either have to have made a hole in her's or be using a protocol that supports NAT translation.
  2. IP address - again, the person you're trying to reach may well be on a dynamically assigned IP address.
  3. Bitmap vs remote GUI rendering; VNC sends a bitmap (admittedly compressed) and so maybe sluggish whereas Windows RDP or Apple remote desktop send GUI primatives which render at the remote end.
  4. What combination of OSes are you using? Running Windows but supporting someone on a Mac? The remote desktop client built into OS-X since Tiger falls back to VNC if the remote machine isn't a Mac - nice touch.
So - in the case of my Father-in-law's Windows XP desktop machine I use VNC every time - This is because I don't know if he's going to call me during the working day (when I'm using an OS-X laptop) or in the evening when I'm likely on a Windows 7 or XP desktop. Since his machine is fixed I had the liberty of installing a DynDNS account on his router (so I hit a address rather than trying to discover his internet-facing IP address) and I opened a hole in his routers firewall (so traffic on TCP port 5900 gets mapped through to his PC). With all that in place I know I can grab control of his desktop using TightVNC (my favorite VNC client) under Windows or the built-in remote desktop of Snow Leopard;

On the other hand my Mum has a laptop which may or may not be at her house. Since she is running Windows 7 and I can always get to a Win7 machine she Instant Messages me with a Windows RDP support request and after a bit of typing in confirming codes it works well without having to worry about IP addresses or NAT traversal.

That leaves the paid-for server-based systems like Log Me In and Go To Assist which require no software installed (it's done via a quick Java download) and take care of NAT traversal etc.

So - you pays for money, you takes your choice. I prefer VNC because it's open and works across OSes. It does require a bit of work to send it across the public internet. After that Windows RDP is fine if you have contemporary Windows boxes. I suspect at some point I'll sign up to Go To Assist and pay as it is very convenient and works entirely well across networks and OSes.

VNC connected to my home Windows 7 media machine, running inside a Windows 7 virtual machine on my Macbook Pro under OS-X

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