Accessing Windows PCs remotely

One of my favourite network admin time-savers is without doubt RDC (Remote Desktop Connection). This simple utility lets you remotely access a Windows system over a network or the Web, provided it is set up to do so and you have proper access.

You open a connection to the PC and then view its virtual desktop. From here, you can access the remote computer as if it were your own: the desktop, client drives, audio sources, serial and parallel ports and printers. Even better, the local and remote computers share a clipboard, allowing data to be interchanged between applications.

So you can use it to monitor your headless server from across the office or access your PC from the other side of the world. Thanks to RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), you can access any Windows XP Pro or Windows 2000 system from any other Windows, Pocket PC, Mac or Linux client. RDP works across any TCP/IP connection.

RDC in practice

Running RDC couldn't be simpler. To set up your PC to be remotely accessible, open the System folder in Control Panel. Under the Remote tab, check "Allow users to connect remotely to this computer". Ensure you have the proper permissions to connect to your computer remotely and click OK. Leave your PC running and connected to the company network with Internet access.

At another PC, click Start-All Programs-Accessories-Communication-Remote Desktop Connection. You then type in the remote computer's IP address (or its network alias if both PCs are connected to the same network) and click Connect. If accepted, a window then appears displaying the remote desktop. Enter a username and password and you're done.

If you use an NAT (network address translation) router, you'll need to forward TCP port 3389 to the IP address of the remote PC. Your firewall may well block RDC - the XP SP2 Windows Firewall can be configured to allow RDC by simply checking a box in the Exceptions tab.

The RDC client comes as standard with Windows XP Pro but the XP install CD also includes RDC clients for Windows 9x and Windows 2000 machines. Or you can download them from Microsoft's Web site. However, you don't actually need to use a client program - it's possible to use Internet Explorer, courtesy of the Remote Desktop Web Connection if you wish.

Insert the Windows XP Professional CD and select "Install additional windows components". Highlight IIS (Internet Information Services) and click Details. Select World Wide Web services and click Details. Tick the checkbox next to "Remote desktop Web connection", click OK twice and Next to install. To connect to the remote desktop from any client computer using Internet Explorer, simply type http://(IP address of your PC)/tsWeb to bring up the Web connect dialogue.

RDC tips and tricks

Having a smooth and responsive RDC is the name of the game, and here are a few things you can do to reduce the lag effect, particularly on low-bandwidth connections.

Colour depth: Okay, it's a bit of an old chestnut, but you should consider dropping the colour depth of the remote workstation - assuming, that is, you don't need 16 million colours! This can have a huge impact on transfer speeds, resulting in quicker-responding connections.

Command prompt 1: You can resort to opening a command prompt instead of using Windows Explorer. Not only does the simple monochrome command line interface speed things up, but so will using DOS commands.

Command prompt 2: If you want to connect to a terminal server via the command prompt you can do so by typing
mstsc -v:servername /F -console
and hitting <Enter>, where mstsc represents the remote desktop connection executable file, -v specifies which server to connect to, /F is for full-screen mode, and -console is there to indicate that you want to connect to the console.

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