When Microsoft released Windows XP, it contained a lot of features that weren’t found in previous versions of the Windows operating system. One of the best new features in Windows XP was Remote Assistance. Remote Assistance relieved a company’s support staff from having to physically travel to each computer that had a problem, and greatly reduced the amount of time required for telephone support. As great as Remote Assistance is however, it does have its shortcomings. There are some network configurations that it just doesn’t work with, and it can be considered as somewhat of a security risk. In Windows Vista, Microsoft has completely revamped the Remote Assistance feature. In this article, I will show you what you can expect from the new version of Remote Assistance.
One way that Remote Assistance has been improved is that it is designed to be more efficient. The Windows XP version of Remote Assistance tended to be difficult to use in low bandwidth situations. As such, the Windows Vista version of Remote Assistance has been re-engineered to use less bandwidth. In doing so however, one feature was removed. In the Windows XP version of Remote Assistance, it was possible to verbally communicate with the person that you were helping. The verbal communications feature has been removed from the Windows Vista version of Remote Assistance in order to conserve bandwidth.
This brings up an interesting point about compatibility. Most organizations probably aren’t going to switch all of their users to Vista overnight, so you might be wondering about whether or not the Vista version of Remote Assistance is compatible with the Windows XP version. The two versions are mostly compatible, but there are a few minor issues (including the verbal communications issue that I just mentioned).
One issue is that Vista’s version of Remote Assistance supports pausing a session. Since the Windows XP version didn’t support this feature, someone who is using Vista to assist someone running Windows XP can pause the session, but the person who is running Windows XP will not be notified that the session has been paused.
A more important issue is that a person who is running Windows XP will not be able to offer assistance to someone who is running Windows Vista. Therefore, if your organization’s help desk depends on Remote Assistance, then you will probably want to make sure that the help desk staff are the first ones upgraded to Windows Vista.
Using Remote Assistance
Establishing a Remote Assistance session through Windows XP is simple. As you may recall, in Windows XP, Remote Assistance was part of the Help and Support Center. In Vista, Remote Assistance has been made into a stand alone application. You can access Remote Assistance by clicking the Start button and selecting All Programs | Maintenance | Remote Assistance. Upon launching Remote Assistance, you will see a screen giving you the choice of either inviting someone to help you or offering to help someone, as shown in Figure A.
Figure A: Upon launching Remote Assistance, you will see a screen giving you the choice of either inviting someone to help you or offering to help someone
If the person who is running Remote Assistance is the one who needs help, they would select the Invite Someone You Trust To Help You option. At this point, the person who is asking for help would see a screen asking if they want to use e-mail to send an invitation, or if they would like to save the invitation as a file.
This particular part of the process probably seems very similar to the Windows XP version at first glance. There is one very important difference though. In Windows XP, you could e-mail an invitation to someone, or you could save the invitation to a file and give it to the recipient some other way. However, just because the recipient had an invitation, it did not necessarily mean that they could connect to the person who needed help. Both machines either had to have publicly accessible IP addresses, or they had to be a part of the same network. In Windows Vista however, Remote Assistance now supports NAT traversal. This means that if one of the users involved in the Remote Assistance session happens to be behind a NAT firewall, the session can still be established, so long as the necessary firewall ports are open.
When the person who needs help creates the invitation, they are prompted to assign a password to the invitation (six character minimum). After doing so, the invitation goes out, and the user’s machine opens a window similar to the one that’s shown in Figure B, and begins waiting for a connection.
Figure B: This is the Remote Assistance window that is displayed on the computer of the person who asked for help
The recipient of the invitation then opens the invitation and is prompted to enter the password that was assigned to the invitation by the user who is asking for help. Simply entering the password does not establish a full blown Remote Assistance session though. The person who sent the invitation will see a pop up message asking if it is OK for the Remote Access session to being. This prevents an administrator from establishing a session without the user’s knowledge.
The dialog box shown in Figure B remains present throughout the Remote Access session. As you can see in the figure, there are a couple of new capabilities. The parties involved in a Remote Administration session can now pause a session, chat, or transfer a file. Another thing worth noting is that even after a Remote Assistance session has been established, the helper can not control the user’s PC unless the user gives them permission to do so. The helper’s console looks similar to the one shown in Figure B, but they also have a Request Control icon. If the helper clicks this icon, the user requesting assistance has to respond to a prompt in order to hand over control of their machine.
There is one last new Remote Administration feature that I want to mention. Remote Assistance now includes session logging. The idea behind session logging is that a XML based log file is created on both the helper’s PC and on the PC belonging to the person who asked for help. The log file is stored in the user’s \Documents\Remote Assistance Logs folder.
I have to admit that I really hope that this is one of those areas in which the Vista beta just isn’t finished yet, because the session logs were a bit disappointing. According to the Microsoft Web site the session logs are used to “help track the information and processes used to correct a problem”. However, on my test network, a session log ended up being little more than a log of connection times, as shown in Figure C.
Figure C: The session logging feature was a bit of a disappointment
As you can see, there have been a number of enhancements to Remote Access in Windows Vista. I am really hoping that, by the time beta 2 of Windows Vista is released, the session logging feature will have been enhanced, because I believe that it is a feature that offers a lot of potential.