Remote System Access

There are a number of products that allow us to control other desktops, do presentations, etc.. I thought I’d share my experience with a few.

One of my clients introduced me to GoToMeeting.

  • It’s extremely easy to use. I find myself starting it up almost every day to provide training and tech support. It’s become a tool that I jump to as readily as email, and now when discussing issues, my clients expect me to offer them a meeting ID so that we can just get onto someone’s desktop and work on an issue first-hand.
  • It allows for a reasonable group of people to join with excellent performance.
  • A conference phone number is provided for every meeting, whether you use it or not. For one-on-one sessions we just use direct point to point phone calls. But when we need to assemble a meeting it’s extremely convenient to be able to give people a conference number. The plan we’re using supports up to 10 calls.
  • Unlike Glance as one example of a view-only product, GoToMeeting is "multi-directional". You can set focus to the desktop of anyone in the meeting, and allow anyone to control any desktop.
  • Every one of my clients has seen how I use this tool and everyone has been impressed enough to ask about how to get it themselves.

A product similar to GoToMeeting is GoToMyPC, which I think is more well-known. I tend to use GoToMeeting to accomplish the same functions as GoToMyPC and beyond. GoToMyPC is great for one-on-one sessions but when I need to involve more people it’s helpful to be able to do so with the same tool. There is a big difference between the products however. GoToMyPC is intended for other people to come into a local PC. It can run all the time on an end-user’s PC (a client, grandma, your web server) and you can connect to that system at any time. No invitation is required.There is also Pro and Corporate licensing for GoToMyPC.

GoToMyPC is very similar to LogMeIn, which personally I prefer, though I can’t cite specific reasons why. When I go out of town, I leave a few systems running LogMeIn, and when I need data or to perform other functions from a remote system (my laptop at Starbucks for example) I can connect in and do what I need.

In that one-to-one PC control category is one of the grand-daddy’s of this market, pcAnywhere. I didn’t know if this product was even maintained anymore. The homepage has nothing but marketing for other Symantec products but you will find a single link to the pcAnywhere v 12.0 product page. They claim to be "the world’s leading remote control solution", and "top-selling remote access software product from December 2000 through January 2006 based on The NPD Group’s Top Selling Business Software list." OK, I’ll believe them, but I don’t know anyone using this software anymore. That said, in addition to Windows, pcAnywhere does allow connect from Linux, Max OSX and Microsoft Pocket PC! And they offer connection to Linux and Mac OS X as well. There is significant benefit there. I dunno, maybe Symantec just needs to work on their marketing for this one.

I mentioned Glance above. One of my clients uses that extensively with their clients, and I understand they like it. Personally I get frustrated if I can’t get control over someone’s desktop. I feel like I’m trying to diffuse a bomb by telling someone else which wire to cut. An end-user with an itchy finger will sometimes click the wrong item and we wind up spending more time diagnosing and fixing issues than if I could just do it myself. Call me power-hungry or a control freak. I’m just a real hands-on guy and I like to work with as few layers as possible between me and the problem I’m working on.

Citrix Online, the same company that brings us GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, also has an offering called GoToAssist. I have not used GoToAssist but as I understand it, it facilitates a model that’s typical in today’s world of support over the web. Anyone on the internet opens a chat window to request support, a tech person chats with them, offers to view their screen, the software is installed to the end-user, and they work out the situation interactively. They follow-up with customer satisfaction surveys and other features expected these days from such an environment. See the How It Works link on the home page for details.

GoToWebinar is like GoToMyPC on steroids with up to 1000 attendees viewing a presentation on an individual’s PC. This is much like WebEx, the company whose software became synonymous with net-based webinars, and today many people still say "let’s webex" regardless of the software they’re using.

I get tickled like a little kid when we start using other tools in combination with those mentioned above. For example:

  • Once someone does a GoToMeeting onto my PC, I can do a LogMeIn over to some other local or remote system, and of course anyone in the meeting can control any of those systems. This is a great way of virtually opening any system I want to anyone I want, without providing passwords, like when I need a third-party to look at one of my client’s systems.
  • Once one of my clients connects to a meeting, we can view not only their PC, but if they open a Remote Desktop Connection, we can operate on any system in their network. For MV environments that includes simple telnet into any DBMS. For a couple of my clients this gets almost ridiculous: LogMeIn to System1, RDC to System2, Telnet to System3, then maybe use that system to access another one.

Is there a downside to any of this? Honestly I haven’t found it yet. With the exception of pcAnywhere, I think all of the software mentioned above has a tiny footprint and it’s quick and easy to get other people using your tools. There’s no big installation routine and there’s not a lot of file residue left on people’s systems. There is very little CPU or memory overhead, so my clients don’t need heavy iron to do this sort of thing. It just works quickly and transparently.

I think the only thing that’s caught my attention is the paradox of keeping software like LogMeIn running all the time in the Windows tray from system boot to shutdown. Maybe this is paranoia but I immediately wonder about security issues but I trust the environment is secure. While it defeats the intended purpose of making any given system always accessible, I’ve chosen to disable the auto startup for LogMeIn, and I’ll ask people to manually start it if I think we’ll be using it.

Of course all of this needs a decent internet pipe, broadband is a requirement these days. You can’t do streaming media with a low bandwidth connection, and that’s sort of what this is. Each product does have optimization options for different connection types, but you really can’t get the full experience over a 56k dialup line. (LOL, or for those of you on 110 baud modems, as my italian friends say – fahgetaboudit.) The good news is that you can get WiFi from anywhere at very low cost these days. So with a wireless network adapter and registration with a service, you can get the full experience from your local coffee shop or bookstore if you don’t have it at the office or home. And if I may digress just a bit more, "3G" wireless BroadbandAccess is amazing. Yes, I’ve used this with GoToMeeting via a broadband wireless card on my laptop, to provide tech support from a forest preserve, and the freedom is absolutely addicting. (I’ve used both the T-Mobile service linked-to here for HotSpot access, and Verizon Broadband Access, and I really like them both.)

I’m sure I’ve missed some options. This isn’t a comprehensive commercial review, just one guy’s experience. Feel free to post a comment with a link to other options if you wish. And I’d appreciate it if you let me know if any of this helps you to find a solution for yourself.

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