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Remote Computer System Support: Especially of Parents [4]

  • Introduction
  • Security Risks
  • Locating  the Server (parental machine)
  • My Current Configuration
  • Misc Notes
  • Links
  • History
  • Footnotes
  • Rev: 01 Nov 2004.


    Modern computing environments are insanely complex. In the 1980s we had GeoWorks Ensemble and other user-friendly solutions that provided an excellent balance of power and usability. In the 2000s we have OS X and Windows XP. Immensely powerful systems that are immensely complex [1],[2].

    It's as though you needed a country cottage, but the only thing you can buy is a space station with integrated launch system. The price is the same, but the space station is neither cozy nor particularly useful for gardening.

    In the 90s we thought user-friendly thin client solutions would make it to market. That was in the dotcom boom. The collapse destroyed a lot of good ideas along with the fluff. So now we make do with inadequate solutions.

    It's bad enough when one member of a family is a computer/OS/hardware/software/network expert  (and I mean expert, not merely someone who (for example) merely makes their living programming computers!) with physical access to all systems. It's much worse when the system is at a parent's home far from reach. In theory one might be able to hire local helpers, but in practice this is surprisingly difficult. Many people, of any age, are reluctant to have a stranger in their house, much less accepting help with a topic that induces (inappropriate! [1]) feelings of inadequacy.

    This page is all about a computer expert doing remote support of a parent's[4] (or sibling's, or friend's, or child's) machine. It's written for the expert, not for the parent. In this page I use the word client to refer to the expert's machine, and server to refer to the parent/sibling/regular human being's machine. (Again, this page is written for the expert.) I focus on support of a non-XP machine with modem access, support for a non-XP machine that's behind a firewall is a different story.

    If both expert and "parent" have XP, use XP Remote Assistance and read no farther.

    Locating the Server (parental machine)

    If the server machine has a fixed IP address, you're fine. That's rare. Parental machines often have modem connections, or if they have broadband the IP address changes. So you need a way to access the server. You could ask your parent for the IP address every time, but that's painful even if the only phone line is not in use as a modem line.

    The usual solution is to set up an account with a Dynamic DNS provider, and to install software on the server (parental machine) that sends the current IP address to the Dynamic DNS provider. See Dynamic DNS for an example).

    Another alternative is the old style one of dialing in to the parental machine. This requires that either their modem be set to auto-answer all calls (yech) or that they switch the model to auto-answer. And, of course, you can't benefit from the speed of broadband. On the other hand, security risks are minimal.

    If the server is behind a firewall, as it should be for any broadband connection, setup is far more challenging. This page focuses on servers that connect to the net via modem and lack a firewall.

    Security Risks

    Doesn't the ability to remotely control a machine have security risks? Yes. Note that VNC passwords are sent in clear text unless you have some kind of SSL connection. OTOH everyone and their mother will be trying to hack WinXP Remote Assistant.

    Ideally the remote access server software should be run on the server machine only as needed for a brief period of time.

    My Current Configuration

    Still under evaluation. Candidate configurations are below.

    Configuration One

    1. Parent access via modem, support access via DSL.
    2. TightVNC (Windows)
    3. Dynamic DNS and DeeEnEs (for parent)

    Note: The above solutions are inexpensive, but the owners often request small fees or donations -- often on the honor system. Please pay if you use them.

    Misc Notes

    1. Most Windows remote control software will not work with DirectX. DirectX bypasses the standard screen interface and goes to hardware, so it's hard to intercept.


    Note that many of the products here are priced for corporate buyers and are not appropriate for home use.

    Remote Access General

    Dynamic DNS

    Windows Specific

    All Windows Versions, but especially Win 98 to Win 2K

    Microsoft XP

    Browser/Web control - all Windows Versions

    Some of these are priced for corporate buyers only. Their strength is they often work through firewalls and the installation is often very straightforward. A weakness is that they are service based, if the vendor goes out of business (yes, that happens! :-) you lose your investment and your service. Even worse -- you must assume the vendor potentially has complete access to your system!

    All of them claim that a continuous connection is a requirement, but I think there are workarounds.

    OS X Specific

    Related Pages

    Faughnan.com Pages



    [1] It's not just the computers and operating systems. Consider Microsoft Word. Even computer experts think the problems they have with Word's formatting is somehow "their fault". Incredibly badly designed software is producing a global epidemic of low self-esteem! (ok, mild exaggeration).
    [2] To be fair, I think a properly configured OS X system may actually provide a workable compromise, but I'm still exploring 10.1.15 and have not tried Jaguar yet. On the other hand, Microsoft bundles a free solution into Windows XP, Apple charges a bunch for Remote Desktop. So, on balance, the two are equally bad choices.
    [3] Old directions -- OSXvnc: Running as a StartupItem Here's how to set up OSXvnc so it starts automatically when you boot the machine, and persists across logins and logouts. Someday there will be an installer to do all this for you, but for now, follow these steps: Download OSXvnc-startupitem.tar.gz. Open the .tar.gz file using StuffIt or similar utility. If you installed OSXvnc in a folder other than /Applications, edit the file 'OSXvnc-wrapper' to reflect the path where it's installed. Run the following commands from the Terminal: % sudo -s root% /Applications/OSXvnc.app/Contents/MacOS/storepasswd lt;desired password> /etc/osxvnc-passwd root% chmod 600 /etc/osxvnc-passwd root% echo '-rfbauth /etc/osxvnc-passwd' >'/etc/osxvnc-args root% mkdir -p /Library/StartupItems root% mv /path/to/OSXvnc /Library/StartupItems If you installed OSXvnc somewhere other than /Applications, use the appropriate path. Similarly, replace /path/to/OSXvnc with the path where you untarred OSXvnc-startupitem.tar.gz. Now reboot. You should see 'Starting VNC server' in the boot messages, and the server will stay running as long as the machine is up. Some notes: When you logout, the Aqua WindowServer restarts, which means the VNC server m
    [4] Yes, I know theoretically many parents are computer experts who might be helping adult children. In practice though I suspect the kids usually find support from friends and partners -- rather than admit to their parents that they could use some help.
    [5] Bill Sanderson writes: NetMeeting is there in XP--start, run, conf <enter> will initialize it and make it visible in shortcuts, etc. NetMeeting is downloadable for the older OS's as well.
    [6] NetMeeting was widely used for errrr ... "adult entertainment". That might have something to do with why Microsoft got out of the NetMeeting directory business. Another reason is that the direct IP connection method of desktop sharing is not compatible with most firewalls; Microsoft needed to move to a solution that can work through firewalls.

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