Remote Desktop is a feature that was introduced by Microsoft in Windows XP Professional. It is the latest version of Microsoft's Terminal Server software, and is available only on Windows XP Professional.

The Microsoft Terminal Server software debuted with Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server Edition, and was designed to allow one server to have installed applications and allow many thin clients to connect remotely to the terminal and view, in a window, the entire Windows desktop, and to allow the user to control the remote computer as though the person were in front of the computer. Because of the multi-user design of Windows NT, it was possible to allow many people to log into the server simultaneously. Unfortunately, hardware was not yet at the level of the software, and Terminal Server was a less than phenomenal success.

Microsoft nonetheless persevered and continued to improve the terminal server software, and when Windows 2000 Server was released, it included a new version of the software. Rather than releasing a special edition of Windows 2000 Server, Microsoft instead opted to include the terminal server software with all versions of the Windows 2000 Server family. The software also had two options when being installed; one could opt to run the software in the traditional mode, allowing many users to connect at once, or one could opt to run the software in remote administration mode, which would allow a small number of users to connect remotely, provided they were administrators. The only difference between the two, functionally, was that non-administrators could remotely connect when using the traditional mode, and that licensing was required when using the traditional mode.

When Windows XP was being developed, Microsoft decided to include terminal services in it. Rather than giving the ability to allow unlimited users to connect to the terminal server for the low cost of $299, Microsoft crippled the software in Windows XP and forced it to allow only one user to connect at a time. Microsoft integrated multiple user connections in Windows XP Professional as it had done in NT 4 Terminal Server and Windows 2000 Server, and developed a technology dubbed "Fast User Switching" which allowed more than one person to be logged on at a time locally. Users could use the "Lock Workstation" feature to return to the login screen, and log in as a different user, with the other person's session still running hidden. Because of this, Remote Desktop has a few new features that weren't present before.

Remote Desktop functions by allowing remote connections to take precedence over local sessions, so that if a remote user connects to the machine, the local user is locked out of the machine while the second user logs in. In addition, there is an extension of Remote Desktop called Remote Assistance, which allows a user to take over the computer of the person using it. Rather than locking the person out of the computer, the screen freezes while the remote person connecting to the machine uses it, allowing the locally logged on person to see what the remote user is doing.

Further, Remote Desktop, if used with the latest version of Microsoft's Remote Desktop client (which is backwards compatible with Windows 2000 Server and Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server), allows users to specify display settings and sound and printer settings. In the past, Terminal Server had three options when connecting to a remote machine: screen resolution, the caching of bitmaps for faster screen loading, and enabling compression for the connection. Remote Desktop on the other hand allows for the following:

  • Specify username and password
  • Specify domain
  • Screen resolution
  • Color depth
  • What to do with sounds played remotely (do not play, do not download)
  • Use window hotkeys and key combinations on remote machine instead of local machine
  • Connect remote disk drivers, printers, and serial devices from remote machine
  • Start programs on the remote machine automatically when connecting
  • Display the remote desktop background (usually costs more bandwidth)
  • Show window contents while dragging
  • Use menu and window animation (slide only, not alpha-blending)
  • Show themes (Visual Styles used in Windows XP)
  • Cache bitmaps

If used with a low color depth (256 colors) and not using themes or window animation, Remote Desktop performs well over a 128kbps uplink, and functions extremely well over a LAN.

Aside from the differences in the client/server communications, Remote Desktop differs from the previous versions of Terminal Server in that it only allows one user to use the terminal services at a time, and cannot be changed to do otherwise. It is not available in Windows XP Home Edition, though Home Edition users can connect to a Professional Edition workstation.

Remote Desktop, currently at version 3.1, is also a remote computer management tool made by Apple, available on Macintosh systems. It is commonly referred to as Apple Remote Desktop, with the acronym ARD popping up frequently. The software costs $300 for a 10-administrator license, or $500 for an unlimited license. The client software is integrated into Mac OS X, so all that needs to be installed is administrative software on machines that need it. To enable it, go to the Sharing preference pane in System Preferences; there's a checkbox for Apple Remote Desktop.

ARD (as I'll refer to it) is an extension of VNCVirtual Network Computing — the original remote client management software. In fact, ARD can be configured such that administrators with VNC software can use full VNC functionality to control a Mac without extra software needing to be installed.

In addition to the basic ability to view what's on a remote computer's screen and control the mouse and keyboard, ARD has a number of features that administrators will find useful.

The most basic of these is the computer-selection interface: rather than having to know the IP address (or DNS name) of a machine, detected machines on the local network are displayed in a "scanner" view. This can be configured so that it shows the LAN, a particular IP range, Bonjour computers (Apple's serverless service discovery protocol), or import a listing from a file. By authenticating to machines, additional lists can be created by the user; a master list of all authenticated machines is also maintained.

This interface is also very useful because it displays a lot of information about the computers it can see, including what software they're running, the current logged-in user, the model of the machine, the version of ARD installed, the network interface used to connect to the LAN, and more. Reports can also be generated containing much more detailed machine information. This basically duplicates the functionality of the Apple System Profiler utility, although I've found there are still some glitches: I recently found two machines which ARD thought had the same serial numbers and MAC addresses, although their System Profilers displayed the correct information.

Once a machine is connected, the administrator can simply observe the screen, take control of its input devices (or share control with the user), lock out the screen, install software, force system restarts, shutdowns, startups, or wakings from sleep. The administrator can also copy data back and forth without removing control from the user, change system settings, upgrade system software, rename the machine, or even send UNIX commands (I personally find this most useful for permissions changes, and the "say" command if I'm feeling perky).

There is also functionality to send messages to users, either in the form of a single alert window, or a chat. We get a lot of use out of this warning students to get off the damn Facebook. (We tried some DNS tricks to block off social networking, but it ended up making the fileserver very very unhappy, so we gave up.)

Another very nice feature is that third party software developers can take advantage of ARD in their products. Mike Bombich (maker of Carbon Copy Cloner) makes a package called NetRestore that is a more useful superset of Apple's image deployment software (think Symantec's Ghost, you Windows users), which allows machines to boot from a network image in order to overwrite a hard drive from a template image, perform diagnostics, and so on. Recent versions of NetRestore have added ARD support, meaning that from the comfort of your office, you can set a machine to net boot, then push down an image onto it. Quite handy.

I have a relatively short list of features I'd like to see integrated into ARD, including support for wireless (if the administrator's machine is connected wirelessly, the dropped packets will cause ARD to shut down the connection. So you can only control machines while you're connected over Ethernet), integrated support for Microsoft's Remote Desktop, and the ability to control my refrigerator. But I don't have a networked 'fridge, so this is mostly a pipe dream.

As software without competitors goes, ARD is well made, and highly useful to any Mac administrator.

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