What's Up with VNC?

For remotely managing NT 4.0 servers or a cross-platform server environment, this software solution can be just the ticket

One of the most common requests I receive from readers is for guidance about remote management tools for Windows 2000 Server. This request always surprises me because Win2K Server lets as many as two users use Win2K Server Terminal Services to remotely perform server management tasks. Windows XP Professional Edition includes a Terminal Services Client Access License (CAL) and the Terminal Services software, which is installed by default on XP clients. Often, however, reader questions concern managing groups of Win2K servers, or groups of Win2K servers that include some Windows NT 4.0 servers, which precludes using Terminal Services.

Windows & .NET Magazine regularly covers remote management in depth, and one consistent reader reaction to this coverage is, Why don't you include AT&T Laboratories Cambridge's Virtual Network Computing (VNC) product? The answer is, We do. To read some recent articles about VNC, see "Related Reading." Because reader requests for information about VNC keep coming, I've made an effort to use VNC and research the product's current status. What I've discovered is that VNC is a product worthy of your attention if you need to support NT 4.0 servers or need cross-platform support.

What Is VNC?
VNC is an open-source platform-independent remote control software application that is well supported by its user community. The VNC software and its documentation are available as a free download from AT&T Laboratories Cambridge's VNC Web site at http://www.uk.research.att.com/vnc. Business users have unique needs, and if you're interested in VNC for your shop, I recommend that you evaluate the freeware to determine whether it's suitable for your environment. Then, evaluate a commercial version of VNC, such as TridiaVNC Pro, available from Tridia at http://www.tridiavnc.com. (Tridia also offers a proprietary freeware VNC version on the company's Web site.) Commercial versions of the software can relieve corporate users' concerns about support and viability.

I don't advocate using third-party remote control software for systems management when you can use Terminal Services. For XP and Win2K environments, Terminal Services works well, and Microsoft recommends Terminal Services to remotely manage Win2K Server (which is why every Win2K Server includes two Terminal Services licenses). However, I recognize that remote control software has a place in the corporate sphere, particularly in mixed OS environments. Being able to manage your servers from the desktop of your choice—a task that's often necessary in mixed NT/UNIX environments—can make your job much easier. And VNC is well suited for managing servers remotely in mixed OS environments. Both freeware and commercial versions of VNC are available for many versions of Windows and UNIX.

Putting VNC to the Test
To develop my test environment, I began by setting up on Win2K Server, NT Server 4.0, Sun Microsystems' Solaris, and Red Hat Linux. Because the VNC client software totals less than 150KB and easily fits on a 3.5" disk, I first tried using the disk individually on the various computers in my network without installing the client, just to see what I could discover. I found that I didn't need to install the client locally to successfully run a remote session—running VNC from the 3.5" disk worked well.

I use Terminal Services to manage the Win2K servers in my network from my XP Pro desktop. I did so originally because of space considerations: Keeping monitors and keyboards attached to a half-dozen server systems takes a lot of room. I first addressed the problem by adding a keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) switch so that all of my servers attached to one console, but I had to switch computers to use the console. Then I began to use Terminal Services and discovered how compelling its ease of use can be. But to access my two UNIX boxes, I needed to either telnet into them or use the console. One convenient feature that VNC makes possible with the UNIX servers is that I don't need to keep VNC running all the time. I can telnet into a UNIX system and launch VNC, then bring up the VNC client and use the UNIX machine's GUI to get a full-screen interface.

An interesting trick I discovered takes advantage of the fact that VNC is stateless—that is, the client doesn't store any state information. I could move from one client machine to another, bring up the same session at the same point (i.e., in an open management application) on the second machine, and continue working in the application from the point at which I left off on the first machine. This capability came in handy during a power failure when I was working from a computer without a UPS. I was able to bring up the computer's VNC session on a different computer (with a UPS) and continue the work I was performing on the target server. And while I was testing Samba (for a separate purpose), I could watch the UNIX server use VNC to open a console session and also watch the Win2K server using the RDP Terminal Services client.

VNC worked correctly when I ran it in a VMware server session. I use VMware for testing purposes, and being able to use VNC with VMware was an added bonus because the VNC application simplified keeping track of the various virtual computing sessions that were running on different computers.

Going Wireless with VNC
One interesting VNC permutation that I haven't had a chance to work with is Harakan Software's PalmVNC (http://www.btinternet.com/~harakan/PalmVNC). PalmVNC isn't a commercial product, but it does provide a solution for Palm OS users who want to run a management application on the Pilot. Combine PalmVNC with a wireless card and network, and you can use your Pilot to perform management tasks on your network. You must be willing to work within the confines of the Pilot screen display, however, because you'll be dealing with a full-sized console displayed in Pilot-sized chunks. Still, this solution will be an interesting one to try, and the PalmVNC software is free.

My Bottom Line
Do I think every reader should rush to download a copy of VNC? No. I firmly believe that the native Terminal Services is the way to go to remotely manage XP and Win2K servers. But if you need remote cross-platform support or remote support for NT 4.0 servers, VNC is certainly worth your consideration.

Related Reading
You can obtain the following articles from Windows & .NET Magazine's Web site at http://www.winnetmag.com.

"Must-Have Remote Administration Tools," May 2002,
InstantDoc ID 24536
"Windows Terminals vs. Network Computers," May 1999, InstantDoc ID 5177
"Remotely Control Any NT Machine," January 2001,
InstantDoc ID 16162

You can obtain the following article from Windows Web Solutions' Web site at http://www.windowswebsolutions.com.

"Running VNC over SSH," June 2002, InstantDoc ID 24839
"Thin Is In," September 1997, InstantDoc ID 521
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