Monday, June 09, 2008

Support your clients remotely

We recently added single-click, remote support to Keystone Computer's services. Now, we are kicking ourselves we did not do it sooner.

Instead of traveling to a customer's premises, we can remote to the customer's machine and troubleshoot and resolve many common problems. It is a great time saver for us and a money saver for our customers.

Key features of the solution we have implemented are:
  • It is idiot-proof.
    • With a "single click" the remote-access-server software is downloaded from our web site to the customer's machine, installed and configured and the session is established with a Keystone tech.
      • No remote-access software needs to be installed on the customer's machine ahead of time.
    • When the session is over, the software is uninstalled, so there are no lingering security concerns for the customer.
  • It is free.

What's the Use Case?

You've got a customer who has a "computer question or problem." The customer has broadband Internet and the customer's computer is running and online. You want a quick and easy way to establish remote access to the client's computer so you can answer the question or resolve the problem.

What is VNC?

In the beginning (circa 1997), there was Virtual Network Computing (VNC). The original VNC source code and many modern derivatives are open source under the GNU General Public License.

VNC systems consist of a client, a server, and a communication protocol.
  • The VNC server is the program on the machine that shares its screen.
  • The VNC viewer (or client) is the program that watches and interacts with the server.
  • The VNC protocol, Remote FrameBuffer (RFB) protocol is very simple, based on graphic data from server to client and event messages from client to server.
Over the last few years, VNC development has forked. The forks now include RealVNC, TightVNC, UltraVNC, ChromiVNC, PalmVNC, et al. Needless to say, this adds a bit of confusion to selecting and implementing a VNC solution.

What is the solution?

Given our use case, we selected UltraVNC with the Single Click add-on -- UVNC SC for short. This is a compact server application (for the customer's machine) that is designed to be downloaded and installed with just a few clicks.

By editing a sample text file and uploading it along with graphics of your choice to the SC Online Creator tool, an UltraVNC SC server file is compiled that is customized for your specifications -- your logo and name and the IP address and port number of your viewer(s). You download the resulting .exe file and put it on your web site where your customers can find it. When they click on it, the file downloads and installs, and the GUI pops up with your logo, name and other info you spec'd. One more click, and the remote session starts (assuming you have a VNC viewer application listening at your end (see below))!

If you are running Windows on your side of the remote session, the viewer application you want is vncviewer.exe. You launch it in listen mode from the command line. Do Start/Run/vncviewer -listen (port #). This will start the VNC viewer in listen mode and put an icon in the system tray.

FYI:

  • There is a certain amount of trial and error involved in getting to your final UVNC SC.exe file. Documentation for editing the text file is minimal and when the Online Creator didn't like some of the graphics I supplied, it just ignored my graphics in favor of the defaults.
  • The VNC viewer packaged in Linux/Ubuntu does not work with the UVNC SC server. It turns out that the Linux/Ubuntu vcnviewer is built to the latest VNC RFB spec. UVNC SC server is built to an older RFB spec. If you want to use a Linux box as the viewer host, you have to use the vncviewer.exe supplied by UVNC and run it in Wine. Ugh!
  • Don't forget to open your firewall on the ports you will be listening to.

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