Extend the boundaries of help desk

Extend the boundaries of your help desk: XP breaks through the wire with third-party PC controls.

Remote Assistance gives tech support direct access to users desktops. But XP migration and security can still be tricky.

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  • If you've held off on migrating from an earlier version of Windows (such as Windows 98 or even 95), making the leap to XP makes a lot more sense now that it's had nearly a year of in-the-field shakedown. It has the NT/2K kernel with 9x's ease of use and attractiveness, and new features that no previous version of Windows has ever had, which makes it easier to manage and configure.

    Remote management

    Windows NT 4.0 introduced the concept of "Terminal Services" to a broad audience -- a deeply integrated system by which one could access a Windows machine's desktop remotely, much in the manner of a commercial product like PCAnywhere. Originally, one needed to buy a dedicated version of NT 4.0 to provide Terminal Services. Windows 2000 and XP now include Terminal Services natively; in XP, it's called Remote Desktop. Managing a server remotely can be done on even a simple dial-up connection.

    The concept of Remote Desktop has been extended in XP to include Remote Assistance, which allows you to give a third party control of your PC over the wire. They see the same desktop you see, and can perform actions on it as if it were their local computer. (It's disabled by default for security reasons, and even when you enable it, it requires an explicit invitation to make it work.) This is a big boon for help desks and tech support: rather than have the help desk walk someone blindly through what needs to be done, the user can grant direct access to a tech support person and have the tech do whatever investigation or make whatever changes are needed -- and show the user what may be wrong, and what can be done to fix it.

    Challenges in migrating

    Moving to Windows XP requires a degree of forethought. Make sure your hardware is up to snuff. XP runs well on 333-MHz processors or better, but needs at least 128M bytes of RAM to perform well, and requires at least 2-4G bytes of hard disk space. Some may find that a simultaneous hardware and software upgrade (with XP as a pre-load) is the best solution, because it all but eliminates questions of hardware compatibility. (Note that organizations that want to manage XP desktops directly in Active Directory should use XP Pro, not XP Home; Home does not have the ability to log into an AD domain.)

    If your company or division uses software written in-house, take the time to make sure that software works properly with XP. Set up a test system that emulates your real work environment as closely as possible and insure each of your custom apps works correctly. Unless they are 16-bit apps that choke on long file names or big volume sizes, odds are they will -- but it never hurts to be certain. Many older Windows apps that refused to work in NT or Win2k due to incorrect OS version reporting can now be made to run using the Compatibility tab in a program's Properties. Deploying XP through the use of disk imaging is a little trickier than before, thanks to the presence of Product Activation (which is designed to forbid, among other things, illegal hard disk cloning). One way to get around this is by buying bulk site-licensed versions of Windows XP, which are pre-activated and can be cloned and deployed as needed. New machines that come pre-installed with Windows XP can offset some difficulties in this regard, but creating clones from bulk-licensed editions allows you precise control over all options, including preinstalled software, network-stack configurations and post-installation tweaks.

    Security issues with XP

    XP has had, and will no doubt continue to have, updates published to address problems with security, as they are uncovered. To that end, always get the most recent hotfixes and service packs for XP. You may want to look into using user policies or a third-party program like Service Pack Manager (www.ntsecurity.com) to manage how hotfixes are installed remotely. Unless your users are exceptionally tech-savvy, it's a good idea to make sure they get all the latest and best product updates without having to hunt for them manually.

    If you're administering a domain of XP Professional PCs through Active Directory, use policies to insure that passwords are strong and changed consistently. As with earlier versions of Windows, you can also use AD policies to lock out making changes to the desktop or network connections, and to force users to not re-use passwords.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
    Serdar Yegulalp wrote for Windows Magazine from 1994 through 2001 covering a wide range of technology topics. He now plies his expertise in Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP as publisher of The Windows 2000 Power Users Newsletter (www.win2kpowerusers.com) and writer of technology columns for TechTarget.

    This was first published in September 2002

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