Remote Desktop Made Simple

I have a good friend who is a car mechanic and he has a particular tool that he swears by. It’s a Snap-On 14” flex head 3/8” ratchet. If you don’t turn a wrench for a living yourself, that might not mean much to you but suffice to say, it’s the first tool to come out of the tool chest in the morning and the last tool to be put away at night. He is physically incapable of doing almost all aspects of his job without that ratchet. It’s a tool he simply can not live without.
In our industry, we are defined by the tools we work with. The reliability and function of our tools to a large degree lay out what we can accomplish. The very services we offer as an IT company are decided for us to a large extent by the flexibility and capability of the tool.
At the beginning of 2016 , after years of serving Grand Forks and surrounding community, Altispeed launched a managed services division. A new service that is marketed nationwide; we will come on site, do a walk through, swap out network gear that is incompatible with our systems, take over your network, and manage it for a monthly fee.
One critical component to this system is our remote desktop solution. Obviously we need to be able to access your system if we are to maintain it. I’d seen other companies use Bomgar so I initially investigated them. If you don’t know what Bomgar is, it’s a hardware appliance device that basically functions in such a way that when a user visits the web server of the appliance, it prompts the user to download a file and run it. The Bomgar appliance then brokers a connection with the technician and you are connected.
I wanted all of that functionality but I was not willing to do business with Bomgar. First, they have not taken a strong stance on Linux. Most of our clients are running Linux on the desktop and we need access to those machines. It’s always our preference at Altispeed to have customers running Linux on the desktop so our desktop Linux user base is growing not shrinking. Secondly though, I am in no way comfortable with Bomgar’s pricing and structure. You essentially have to pay them a ransom to use a box you paid for…heavily paid for I might add.
Enter ScreenConnect.
A lot of people in the IT industry have been switching to ScreenConnect. We were one of their first customers. ScreenConnect offered all of the things that Bomgar offered but at a drastically lower price. ScreenConnect was not open source and so I entered into it reluctantly. Unsurprisingly a few years later, literally 3 months into offering our new service, they have now changed their pricing model. It has become drastically more expensive and now they will not allow you to buy their product outright, you must pay the ransom. I was immediately in a bind. I had customers that we had to support and a software solution that I was no longer willing to use.
At this point there are a lot of you that are thinking to yourself ‘Why not TeamViewer’? I’ll be the first one to defend TeamViewer’s support for Linux, despite utilizing Wine to achieve Linux compatibility. I have had ONE HUNDRED PERCENT SUCCESS at always having the latest version of TeamViewer available on Linux. At the end of the day, I don’t care how a company supports Linux, I just care that they make it a top priority. TeamViewer certainly has and continues to make Linux a top priority.

The big issue I take with TeamViewer is it’s cloud (read: other people’s computer) software. If the TeamViewer company ceases to exist tomorrow every single instance of TeamViewer is completely useless. TeamViewer clients call home to broker the connection. This is unacceptable to me.
As of a few months ago, we have switched our company to a new solution. This new software solution runs perfectly on Linux, can run even if the company that created it ceases to exist, and has more features and function than I had ever dreamed with any of the other remote support solutions. That software is Simplehelp. I want to make sure I state this clearly and leave no room for a misunderstanding: if you are a company who supports remote clients and you are not using Simplehelp ,you need to RUN (not walk) to your computer and buy a license NOW! Let’s start with their trail license. It’s highly unlikely due to their cloud infrastructure that I would have chosen TeamViewer anyway but they actually removed themselves from the consideration board by not offering a trial license for commercial use. You can use TeamViewer for personal clients (and I do) but if you even TRY to use it in a commercial setting they have very sophisticated algorithms that will shut your sessions down. There’s no way on this planet, or any other, I’m shelling out a few grand on software I can’t see work in MY production environment. Not only was I able to request a Simplehelp trial license, they didn’t put up a fuss when I requested a second one because we didn’t fully evaluate everything on the first try.
Buying Simplehelp was simple and straightforward. I was able to do it on my phone on the side of the road while driving home from a client a few hours away. Setting up Simplehelp on Ubuntu 16.04 took mere minutes. Simplehelp can be run one of two ways. The first is on demand mode where the client visits your server and your server automatically detects the client’s operating system and offers a download. An option to choose an offline installer for the client to move to another machine is available as well. Once the appropriate download is chosen, a file is downloaded, the client accepts your disclaimer, and they go into your queue. The second way is the remote access agent in which, as its name implies, an agent file is downloaded. Once installed, it runs in the background and offers the technician unattended access to that machine at anytime. That right there was enough for me, and when I first went on my podcast and recommended Simplehelp that was really the extent to which I had tested it. I couldn’t have been more misinformed because that barely scratches the surface of what Simplehelp is capable of.
Access Controls
Simplehelp allows you to create groups and assign specific machines to that group. This gives me the comfort and security of not having to worry which machines I enroll in the unattended access portion. For example, I have machines at my house that I want access to but I do not want any of our technicians to be able to access. We also work with a variety of contractors and I’m able to create them accounts and only give them access to the machines that they need to have access to.
Monitor
There is an “in use” icon that shows when a PC is being used and how much time has elapsed since the last use. We can tell from our management console immediately if we are going to interrupt a users work or if they have likely left the machine. Additionally, we have the ability to collect metrics on memory usage, CPU usage etc. Simplehelp also has a screenshot utility that captures the screen every few seconds and that can be displayed in the event you are waiting for a user to finish a given task. Of course the monitoring also includes basic things like when the machine is off line as well as what operating system and version is currently installed.
Diagnostic Mode
As its name implies, there is a diagnostic mode that gives us a plethora of date regarding the computer’s performance etc.
View Only Mode
We have the ability to simply watch a user’s screen. This has been unbelievably useful if the user wants to show us something while leaving our mouse and keyboard free to Google their problem.
File Transfer Mode
Many times a user will just ask for a given file. Rather than remotely connecting to their machine and taking over their display, we can simply transfer a file to their computer or grab a file from their computer.
Request Access
Certain machines or certain clients do not want us to connect without their knowledge. On the other hand though , we don’t want to have to walk a user through downloading a file, running that file, escalating privileges, etc. every time. The brilliant folks at Simplehelp have thought of this. You can specify that the machine asks the user for permission to begin a remote session. Additionally, you can manually trigger the request if for example, you see the user working on something but need to jump in and take care of something.
Password Certain Machines
In addition to the groups, you can make a machine available to certain technicians but require them to supply a password to access the machine. I’ve used this a few times for a close family friend who needed support from one of our technicians. His machine is enrolled in the system so that I can access it but also I can share the password (and of course later change it) for one time access for another technician.
The real test of any software is not in its function but in how well the company stands behind the product. Well, this week that test happened. I woke up to see that an update was available for Simplehelp. The LTS part of my brain said, ‘Do it later. It works. Don’t mess with it.’ That’s a good thing because Simplehelp made an update that made the client totally unusable under Linux. Any key you pressed would repeat constantly and right mouse clicks would not work at all. To say that I was petrified would be a monumental understatement. This tool has literally become my lifeblood. As silly as this sounds, I have gotten to the point where I prefer working through things at my desk over physical access to machines we have on the workbench. Thank God I have good friends in the right places because I did not have the time to troubleshoot these issues. Chris from CTCSolutions did. Chris and I are good friends and have worked on many projects in the past. Much like Altispeed, CTCSolutions is dedicated to providing support to a large desktop Linux user base. He opened a support ticket with Simplehelp and within a few hours they had responded and said they were looking into the issue. At the same time I tweeted them. They responded again almost immediately and asked for specific distributions they could test. I gave them the distributions and the next tweet I received was them telling me the problem was fixed.
I immediately contacted Chris and we did exhaustive testing. Yes, in fact, Simplehelp fixed the two issues with Linux entirely. I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air that was. I know now that I have the right solution. Simplehelp may not be open source but last week they demonstrated that they do in fact care about their Desktop Linux users. Both Chris and I are going to be purchasing additional licensing from Simplehelp and expanding our use of the software. I have reached a point where I can defend this position pretty well – Simplehelp is the best software solution for remote IT administration when you take ALL of the factors into consideration. Time will tell if they continue to be this loyal and obsessed with customer satisfaction but at the moment I’m adding them to the list of tools that will always be installed on my machine. Give them a shot at simple-help.com.
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