Remote-control software grows up

Tried-and-true remote-control software has become an indispensable network technology, and vendors are building new security and management features around it that make remote control even more useful in major corporate networks.

Remote-control software from key players such as Altiris Software Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., Funk Software Inc. and Symantec Corp. today is most often blended into larger application suites for help desks and network management.

This traditional remote-control software on a host machine lets it be controlled by the mouse and keyboard of a second machine that is running complimentary remote-control software, but Web-based tools and services are starting to take over. These service companies include Expertcity and WebEx and enable remote-control sessions via software agents that users downloaded from these providers’ Web servers.

Remote-control software is useful to IT support staff, who can use it to look at users’ desktops for problem resolution and make changes over the phone. Customers also can use it to collaborate on documents.

Vendors have built extensively on this foundation. Altiris sells its Carbon Copy remote-control software most often in suites of applications. So a customer might buy it in a package with Client Management software that keeps track of the clients in client/server applications. Carbon Copy lets IT staff take over remote PCs to install, update and troubleshoot these clients directly from the Client Management application. There is no need to separately boot Carbon Copy to establish the remote-control session.

The company recently introduced support for handhelds that let administrators take over machines from their PDAs as they move around in wireless environments.

Similarly, CA Control IT software is integrated with its Unicenter management platform. The application lets network executives set rules on who can take control of what remote machines under what circumstances. “We got it because it comes bundled with other applications,” said Jason Bartlebaugh, a technical services administrator with Sheetz convenience stores based in Altoona, Penn.

Sheetz uses CA’s Asset Management software in conjunction with Control IT to access remote machines to determine what software is running on them. The remote-control feature also lets his staff avoid long drives to remote sites to deal with problems. Instead, they take over the machine and deal with the trouble directly, as if the machine were right there.

But some users doubt the security of remote control services that involve a Web-server in the provider’s network. “For security purposes, we typically don’t trust other folks out there. We don’t want to use it if we can’t put our arms around it,” said John Mihalkovic, technical manager of Sentara Health Care in Norfolk, Va. The company uses Symantec’s pcAnywhere to maintain servers.

Other users, though, assess the security of Expertcity and decide if it is secure enough. Mattress Giant uses Expertcity’s GoToMyPC service for its executives to access their desktops remotely via the Internet, said Steve Williams, CIO of the Dallas mattress retailer. “My director of security tried to get through it and couldn’t. We had an independent security company test it and they blessed it. And it passed last year’s security audit by Deloitte & Touche,” Williams said.

Even so, use of any remote-control gear should be monitored under a set security policy, according to a Gartner report called , Personal Remote Control Spells Security Disaster.

In particular, corporate network security executives must look out for the low-end remote-control products. Designed for individuals to access their free-standing PCs, these entry-level applications could be installed on desktops in corporate LANs, creating potential security risks, the study said.