Virtual troubleshooting

Category: Remote control software
Name of tool: Virtual Network Computing
Company name: AT&T Research Labs UK
Price: free
URL: www.uk.research.att.com/vnc
Windows platforms supported: 95, 98, NT (SP 3 or better), 2000, Me
Quick description: A simple but useful remote control utility

Strom-meter:
**** = Very cool, very useful

Key features:

Pros:
Easy to setup and use
Small and quick download

Cons:
Mouse response could be better

Description:

Here's a typical situation. A remote user on your corporate network calls you up and tells you about a problem with his or her computer. To troubleshoot, you want to be able to take control of this remote computer over the Internet. But your company didn't budget for software such as PC/Anywhere. Or your user doesn't have a copy handy to help you can figure out what is wrong. What do you do? To the rescue is VNC, or Virtual Network Computing, a piece of freely available software developed by AT&T's research labs in Cambridge, UK.

VNC has two separate pieces: one is installed on the host computer, or the one to be controlled, and the other to be installed on the viewer or controlling computer. The viewer is small -- so small, in fact, it can fit on a floppy with plenty of room to spare. It takes about ten minutes to download and install the software, and then you can be on your merry way to remote control. When was the last time you downloaded something like that?

Don't let its small byte size fool you: this is a solid piece of software and will work well across the Internet. Of course, the faster the path and the lower the latencies between the two computers the better it will work. And if you want to do your remote controlling using non-Windows platforms, there are a number of other operating systems supported, including Mac, Linux, Solaris, and even Windows CE. That's helpful, particularly in corporations with a mixed bag of systems to support. And there is even source code available for all of these platforms.

There aren't a lot of options to fool with, which means you can walk a user through it from download to fully running installation with more chance of success. And you can add a password to protect your host computer from being controlled by some random person, which is an important plus.

I have one small beef with VNC: its mouse control could be crisper, one thing that PC/Anywhere excels at. By this I mean that as you move your local mouse, the mouse of the remote machine mostly tracks along with your movements, although some times there is a bit of a delay. It is good enough, especially over high-bandwidth links, to work with.

If you like VNC, and if you have a need for thin clients, you might want to consider a set of terminals from Axel.com. These terminals make use of this protocol and application.

All in all, this is one of those products that does a very specific job, but does it well and without a lot of frills and excess baggage. And AT&T continues to work on new platforms and versions, which is a good sign indeed.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

Bio: David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant, and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him email at david@strom.com.

This was first published in February 2001

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