Help Me Help You: Windows XP Remote Assistance

Thursday Jan 31st 2002 by ServerWatch Staff

In his latest article, Dan DiNicolo covers another great new feature in Windows XP that really has the potential to help companies reduce administrative costs. If used correctly, the Remote Assistance tool can be a major help to system administrators who have the responsiblity of supporting users.

by Dan DiNicolo

Last week I covered one of my favorite new features in Windows XP, the System Restore feature. This week I've decided to cover another exciting new capability that I'm sure will be a major help to system administrators who also have responsibility for support users - the Remote Assistance tool.

This new RA tool in Windows XP is one that really has the potential to help companies reduce administrative costs if used correctly. Essentially what the tool allows is for a user to request help from another user via e-mail - giving that user the ability to take over their PC for the purpose of showing them how to carry out a task or to troubleshoot a problem they may have encountered. Imagine if you or your help desk staff could remotely connect to a user's PC as if that PC was functioning as a terminal server - think of that and you've got the picture.

But wait, there's more! Once the remote user has connected to the troublesome system, they can chat with the user, and not just using the keyboard - on a LAN connection, users can communicate using speakers and a microphone if available. I think I'll still stick to the phone, though.

The actual process of initiating a remote connection is simple enough, as are the requirements - both PCs must be running Windows XP to begin with, and the user requesting support is going to need a properly configured e-mail client (or MSN Messenger), since the request will be sent using e-mail.

To begin requesting help, a user simply needs to access Help and Support from the Start menu and choose 'Invite a friend' to connect to your computer using Remote Assistance. One important note right off the bat for those running a personal home firewall - in order for the other user to help you, you must allow access on port 3389.

The Remote Assistance tool walks you through a series of steps to allow another user to connect, as shown below:

Note that options exist to ask for support using either MSN messenger or via e-mail:

After the e-mail address has been entered, a user simply needs to select 'Invite the person' and the screen allows an e-mail message to be composed to the recipient, explaining the problem or simply asking for help. After the message has been composed, the user gets to control how long the invitation remains valid as well as configure a connection password. The valid invitation time can be adjusted later if necessary.

After the invitation has been sent, the user has the ability to change its configuration as required. It is worth noting that you will have to provide the password to the user in some additional manner, since it will not be included in the message that is sent. As for that message, it looks a little something like this:

Note the attachment called rcBuddy.MsRcIncident. This is the file that should be opened in order to initiate the connection. It will automatically open a window prompting you for the password the other user created for you.

If the connection is successful, you will be able to chat in real-time and potentially have the ability to remotely control their keyboard and mouse if they allow. The user will be notified of your connection prior to its establishment, and they'll need to authorize it. You also have the ability to do a variety of useful things including exchanging files with the connected system.

This is a tool that can clearly be beneficial to companies as part of their user support strategy if users are trained properly. To that end, it offers a great deal to companies who have to support remote users, and will benefit companies that provide user support to smaller clients - hopefully saving a trip in person at least some of the time. My only qualm with the tool is its biggest limiting factor - the Remote Assistance tool only works if both systems are running Windows XP. While I can understand that on the side of those asking for help, it severely limits the potential for providing it. I guess it's not really that big a surprise, though.

Dan -

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