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Remote Possibilities

Traditional remote-control software includes file-transfer functions along with remote-control capabilities. But to distinguish themselves in a crowded market, vendors are adding components usually found in desktop-management suites. For example, NetSupport Manager provides hardware and software inventories as well as support for SNMP and Wake-on-LAN. Conversely, some remote-control products, such as Altiris Carbon Copy and Novell's Remote Management Agent, are part of desktop-management suites. If you are considering a desktop management solution or use Altiris Client Management Suite or Novell ZENworks, you won't find any of the best-of-breed products a compelling alternative to the remote-control component included in those packages. But you wouldn't want to purchase these packages just for remote control.

Performance Ranking
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Secure Communications

Each product we tested provides options for encrypting authentication schemes and data streams, but it's misleading to make security comparisons across the board. For example, NetSupport uses 56- to 256-bit DES (Digital Encryption Standard) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption, while pcAnywhere uses Microsoft's default CSP (Cryptographic Service Provider) and RC4 encryption. In the long run, though, no encryption scheme is unbreakable. If the authentication scheme is compromised, that's a critical flaw. However, if the data stream is intercepted, that's not as critical because traffic contains only screen updates. We verified that no clear text passed on the wire when encryption was enabled and tested common security features, such as lockout, connection restrictions and file-access permissions.

Whether you use a modem-to-modem connection or a LAN connection with remote control, you're bound to encounter communication errors. We tested a program's ability to detect and recover from communication errors (error detection and recovery). No applications could identify the disconnect immediately, and only half provided an error message before closing the session. Most returned to the client application. However, TWD's Remote-Anything abends, while LapLink's remote control and pcAnywhere's file-transfer programs were the most stubborn--they just sat there and let the user think he or she was still connected. Novell's Remote Manager identified the disconnect quickly, but the host was not usable until after a reboot. Both NetSupport and CrossTec provide keep-alive functions. NetSupport ticks hosts every 18 seconds and identifies a remote-control-session disconnect within approximately 43 seconds. When the tick is timed every 1 second, it identifies disconnects within 30 seconds.

Server administrators will be tickled by many of these products' features, such as a master's ability to broadcast files to a number of hosts and directory integration to set up remote control in the enterprise with the same users and groups used for account management. Altiris and Symantec both offer host code that can be installed without a reboot, ideal for mission-critical servers. Unique to this roundup, Altiris also provides asynchronous and synchronous modes for remote control. The synchronous option offers screen updates in real time, while the asynchronous mode scans the remote display and updates display changes only. The asynchronous setting provided ideal performance for viewing Java applications.