Professor Windows - October 2002
eXPeriencing Remote Assistance
Ziv Eden, Test Lead, Microsoft Israel
Supporting users throughout the organization or friends over the Internet isn't an easy task. Even in the era of sophisticated policy assignments and a handful of utilities, numerous issues cannot be resolved without working at the user's console in an interactive session. Technologies and applications have emerged during the years to overcome this challenge and provide a manner of remotely controlling the other party's computer. In Windows XP and above we have Remote Assistance, offering a free, built-in mechanism to remotely help users any time, anywhere. This column will cover what Remote Assistance is and how it differs from Remote Desktop or Terminal Server sessions, as well as how we can use it along with some helpful tips.
What is Remote Assistance?
Remote Assistance (or RA) provides a way to get help when running into problems with a computer. Remote Assistance can be used as a support application inside your organization, as well as a way to directly help friends and family.
There are three ways to use Remote Assistance:
- via instant messaging , using Windows Messenger
- via email (by sending a message to initiate a RA session)
- via a file (by saving your request for assistance to a file)
To use Remote Assistance, the computer receiving assistance and the computer providing assistance must both run Windows XP. They can be running Windows XP Professional or Windows XP Home Edition (Keep in mind that only Windows XP Professional can connect to a Windows domain, plus it offers many other important features and capabilities, such as enhanced Security). Both computers must be connected through the network or the Internet.
For more information, see Overview of Remote Assistance in Windows XP and the various related links in the end of the article.
Comparing Remote Assistance with Remote Desktop
Leaving aside non-GUI remote control tools (i.e. telnet.exe, which now in Windows XP includes full command-line capabilities), Remote Assistance is one of two new significant capabilities in the field of remote communication between PCs introduced in Windows XP. The other is Remote Desktop, which essentially brings the terminal services capability to the end user, to the client PC. It enables you to remotely log on to a session on a Windows XP Professional client, the same as you would logon to a Terminal Services session on the Server, using the terminal server client software. It does differ from the Windows Server Terminal Services in the fact that it is limited to one connection only. In fact, there can be only one active user working interactively on a Windows XP Professional workstation at a given time. When you initiate a Remote Desktop session to your Windows XP computer, the currently logged-on user is logged off first, and the computer is locked. (Tip: you can logon to the current active session by using the /CONSOLE switch of MSTSC.exe, the Terminal Services Client software. For a list of MSTSC switches, click here ).
As opposed to the use of Remote Desktop, Remote Assistance helps you to take full control of a Windows XP client or Windows .NET Server computer while both computers (the inviter's and the support person's) can use the keyboard and mouse on the remotely controlled computer. Remote Assistance's screen includes chat, audio and video capabilities, along with file transfer and full desktop control that can be used during the remote support operation. You can invite someone to help you remotely from the Windows XP Help & Support Center. You can also send an invitation to remotely connect to someone else's computer from the Help & Support Center.
Both Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop can be configured/enabled-disabled by right-clicking My Computer, choosing properties, and selecting the Remote tab.
Essentially, the idea behind Remote Desktop is to remotely manage your computer, while Remote Assistance is used to help and support other computers. Let's try and compare these two remote capabilities to understand how they really differ from each other:
Remote Assistance can be initiated via Email, Windows Messenger or a file. Remote Desktop can be used using a RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) 5.0/5.1 client, such as mstsc.exe or the TSWEB ActiveX client (from a web page).
Remote Desktop can use any Windows Terminal Client (RDP 5.0 or RDP 5.1) to connect to that computer, even from Windows 9x/2000 computers. (Tip: On the Windows XP CD, under \SUPPORT\TOOLS you'll find a file called MSRDPCLI.exe. This file contains the setup for the Terminal Client Software (Remote Desktop Connection, or MSTSC.exe) for Windows 9x/2000 computers. You can run this file to install the new terminal services client to perform Remote Control to your Windows XP Professional computers and Windows terminal services servers from Windows 95/98, for example. You can also download MSRDPCLI.exe from here ). Remote Assistance requires both computers to run Windows XP.
Using Remote Assistance we have the option to offer assistance as well as inviting someone else to come and take control of our computer.
While Remote Desktop can provide full screen access to the computer's desktop/console, once the Remote Assistance session is initiated, the parties involved can also use chat, audio/video conversations and file transfer sessions, in addition to taking full control of the user's desktop (The inviter can terminate the session by pressing the ESC key).
In Remote Desktop, only one user is active at a given time, while in RA (Remote Assistance), both users can activate the keyboard and mouse.
The request for a Remote Assistance session can be limited to certain duration.
Remote Assistance doesn't require you to configure a local account on the computer to which you are connecting. Remote Desktop, however, requires a local or a domain account and its password to login to the remote Windows XP computer.
Remote Assistance can also be used in "View Mode only", while Remote Desktop cannot (see the following section, 'Configuring Remote Assistance using Policies' for more information on this option).
Last but not least, Remote Desktop is only available in Windows XP Professional. Remote Assistance is available on Windows XP Home Edition as well (can be used for home support of friends and family).
Configuring Remote Assistance using Policies
Group Policies can be used to define Remote Assistance's behavior and configuration.
To configure the local policy, go to Start->Run->gpedit.msc. This will fire-up the Local Group Policy MMC snap-in. You can also use Active Directory to configure Remote Assistance for all the Windows XP/.NET Server computers in a domain, by using the Active Directory Users & Computers MMC Snap-in, right-clicking an organizational Unit, choosing properties and going to the 'Group Policy' Tab.
In both cases, after the Group Policy snap-in has loaded, go to Computer Configuration->Administrative Templates->System->Remote Assistance.
There are two main policies available for Windows XP and above:
Solicited Remote Assistance Solicited remote assistance refers to the situation where a user requests help from another user (usually the IT department or an expert). When this setting is enabled, a user can request help and an expert can connect to the computer. When the expert tries to connect, the user will still be given a chance to accept or deny the connection (giving the expert view-only privileges to the user's desktop) and will afterward have to explicitly click a button to give the expert the ability to remotely control the desktop if remote control is enabled. Other configuration options for this setting are:
'Permit remote control of this computer' (choosing whether the connecting party will be able to remotely control the computer or only view the user's desktop).
'Maximum ticket time' (two settings that control the maximum time of validity of a user's help request). When the ticket expires, the user must send another request before the computer can be contacted for Remote Assistance. The default for ticket time is 30 days.
Note that when solicited remote assistance is disabled, a user cannot send a request for assistance and an expert cannot connect to the computer in response to a user request.
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Figure 1 Remote Assistance Group Policies configuration
Offer Remote Assistance - This setting can be used to determine if a support person or IT admin (an expert) can proactively offer remote assistance to this computer, even without the user explicitly requesting it first.
Note that an expert cannot connect to the computer unannounced or control it without permission from the user. When the expert tries to connect, the user is still given a chance to accept or deny the connection (giving the expert view-only privileges to the user's desktop), and thereafter the user has to explicitly click a button to give the expert the ability to remotely control the desktop, if remote control is enabled.
When enabled, you can select either "Allow helpers to only view the computer" or "Allow helpers to remotely control the computer". When you configure this setting you also specify the list of users or user groups that will be allowed to offer remote assistance ("helpers"). You can add helpers to the list by clicking "Show". The format for adding helpers is: <Domain Name>\<User Name> or <Group Name>, e.g. MyDomain\User1. See the screen shot at Figure 2 below.
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Figure 2 configuring 'Offer Remote Assistance' helpers list
Now go re-motivate your support experience!
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