Where's the remote?

Hand holding a TV remote control Is remote administration a weapon of big brother or front-line tool? Anton Levchuk of Famatech answers.

It’s difficult for the IT industry to avoid charges of big brother-ism. After all, George Orwell's original creation, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, uses technology as a form of social control. If you type 'big brother' into Google, the stories are almost always linked to some form of technology innovation - unless they're about racist housemates in the latest edition of the TV show.

So any technology that goes under the name of remote control is bound to raise eyebrows at the very least.

Fortunately, it is also known as the more benign 'remote administration', which is a far more accurate representation of what this software does. Remote control is not about an Orwellian dystopia of mindless automata under the control of an all-seeing entity. Instead it simply, and far more innocently, enables IT administrators and helpdesks to operate far more efficiently and effectively.

It is a long-accepted truth among business leaders that it is not just the quality of their goods, services and people that gives them competitive advantage. It is often the more hidden side of the business, the back-stage processes and efficient management of daily activity that helps to trim costly excess from the budget and run a more streamlined operation.

That, of course, includes IT. So pervasive is it, that it is hard to imagine a business model today that does not rely on technology and networked systems in one form or another. Which means that the role of IT administrator is becoming more and more important. Any glitch, any problem, anything that isn't functioning as well as it might, and helpdesk staff are expected to get it fixed immediately, preferably sooner.

A company that is large enough to have its own IT department is likely to have a significant number of PCs, laptops and PDAs to be looked after. A company that is still growing, and outsources IT support to a specialist firm, knows that there is no guarantee that support-staff can drop every other client to visit their premises as soon as the problem is reported.

This is where remote control comes in. It enables administrators to log on remotely to a user's machine and see exactly what the user can see. It enables them to delve into the system to diagnose and fix any problems quickly and easily without expensive call-out charges and wasted time.

The problem-solving function alone means that any investment in remote administration should swiftly pay for itself. It may be slightly disconcerting for users to see applications open on their computers and Windows frames get minimised without them touching a thing, but the advantages are clear.

However, the diagnostic aspect is not the only advantage that the newest remote administration software brings to companies that use it. By enabling IT administrators to manage large number of PCs securely and efficiently, it also facilitates daily management of networks and systems. In other words it helps prevent problems occurring in the first place.

So, when it first appeared on the IT scene, remote administration already offered significant advantages to users, who experience a far greater percentage of uptime, and IT administrators who can carry out a significant part of their role much more efficiently.

But changes in remote administration software have enhanced those advantages further. For a start, the amount of latency in earlier systems meant that they weren't necessarily suitable for ongoing management. They could handle one-off tasks, but the time lag between action and screen updates in both directions meant that many of the efficiency gains could be lost.

Today, zero-latency models have addressed this problem and IT administrators can assess and fix any problems in what amounts to real time with no loss in performance. With the newest versions of remote administration, consumption of CPU capacity is around ten per cent, compared to the 60 per cent that older versions typically experience.

This also means that international operations can now take advantage of a centrally-located IT help desk. Where previously time delay over distance was notable, now the mileage involved makes no difference.

Security has also been improved. Advanced encryption and secure certification protects data that is being accessed remotely, and ensures that only authorised personnel are able to log in to the administration tools. At the same time, users can see who is connecting to their machines, and give or deny them permission to do so.

IP filters can also be set that can limit the range of IP addresses that can connect to the machine. Again it helps to ensure that only authorised employees have access to valuable data. Finally, different levels of permissions can also be set.

Administrators can have full control over the client machine, they can watch what’s going on without doing anything in viewer only mode, or they can have file transfer functionality.

Not only is this important in terms of protecting corporate information from illicit prying eyes, it also helps to counter any remaining concerns about the relationship between technology and surveillance.

One of the criticisms that has been lodged against remote administration is not that it controls the user, but that it allows the IT department access to every employee's machine.

What that means in the real world, is that the IT department has access to both professional and personal information - after all many people will use work machines to access online financial services, for example. And it's hard to imagine the employee who doesn't send personal emails from work on occasion.

In a recent survey an alarming number of IT administrators had in fact confessed to using remote administration to effectively spy on their colleagues. By giving the user control over who accesses their machine, this threat of stealth surveillance is effectively removed.

Naturally this reassures users. But it also enables organisations to use remote administration in countries where privacy laws are very strict, for example in Germany.

These news developments in functionality also expands the potential uses of remote administration software. Instead of just facilitating the life of the help desk manager, it can support remote and mobile workers as well. 

With remote administration software installed on their laptops or home PCs, remote workers can access the entire corporate network - just as IT administrators can. In effect, it enables the remote PC to act like a thin client, downloading applications and data from the server as and when required.

As remote working becomes increasingly critical to most organisations this function is extremely valuable. One of the biggest headaches that IT desks have when faced with an ever growing army of road warriors among the workforce is the ever growing security risk that mobility presents, and the numbers of laptops and other devices that get lost on the train or in the back of taxis, or get stolen. Even the biggest names - including MI5 - are prone to wandering laptops.

But with the remote administration thin client model enabled, no valuable data is ever stored on the machine. If it goes missing, the information stays put.

Passwords aren't saved on the machine, downloading the software without permissions cannot be done - and where permissions exist, it is not a process that can be carried out while the owner is only temporarily absent. So even is the user leaves his laptop open while paying his coffee bill, fellow caffeine addicts cannot quickly access data.

What's more, the ability to connect from any distance, without loss of performance, gives users the flexibility and functionality they need to work on a truly mobile - even global - basis. 

Remote administration is changing - adapting to the needs of the modern business. It's no longer just about behind-the-scenes productivity and slick, but hidden, operations. Nor is it about close scrutiny of working patterns and personal behaviours. Today, remote administration is on the front line.

July 2007