The Port of San Diego's IT support staff has largely eliminated the need to lay hands on troubled computers through the use of virtual network computing.
The IT department of the San Diego Unified Port District has a common challenge, supporting a staff of more than 500 people in 11 locations, including cruise and cargo ship terminals, administrative buildings, public spaces and harbor police and fire departments. The difficulty was trying to support and maintain all of those computers from a central location, sometimes miles away.
“We’ve got buildings spread out from one end of the San Diego Bay to the other, 10 or 15 miles away,” said system support analyst Maria Horne. “We had an IT staff of 10 or 12 people, including a couple of help-desk guys.”
This meant “trying to support users blind,” Horne said; talking by phone to someone with a problem and trying to elicit a description of it that let support staff identify and fix it. More often than not, someone had to drive to another location for the laying on of hands. The staff would often “bundle” calls, reserving a day to go to a site and fix all of the problems at that site at once, but that meant users sometimes had to wait several days for a fix. Plus, while staff were fixing problems at a remote site they were not available to address incoming problems. Sometimes a remote problem could not be fixed without information from the help desk, which meant additional shuttling or making a call to someone else.
A solution to this situation was VNC — virtual network computing — a desktop sharing system that lets the IT staff see and take control of a remote PC or server. An enterprise license from RealVNC gives the IT staff remote access to computers across the facility.
“They call in and we say, ‘Can we remote your screen?’ We fix it, they’re happy, we don’t have to leave our workstations,” Horne said. “What it costs is well worth the savings we’re seeing. We are able to help many more users now, by 10- or 15-fold.”
“That’s what VNC was invented for,” said Adam Byrne, vice president of strategic alliances at RealVNC.
Since 2002 the company has been maintaining and commercializing what began as an open-source tool for remote support and maintenance. In addition to the basic function of pushing screen data from server software on the end user’s computer to viewer software on the IT staff’s computer and enabling remote control, the company has layered on more functionality for chat, file transfer and remote printing as well as authorization and encryption for security.
Developed in the 1990s, virtual network computing today is a commonly used technology for remote access, not only for IT support and maintenance but also for telework and other remote-access needs. It has more esoteric uses, as well. At NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division, VNC is being used to reduce overhead for remote screen viewing over high-latency networks, such as the Internet. VNC uses a low-overhead protocol to transmit screen images, reducing latency from minutes to seconds, which NASA says makes the process “useful instead of being tedious and nonproductive.”
Open-source versions of the software still are available from a number of companies, and Intel has integrated a VNC compatible server from RealVNC into its vPro family of processors that can enable remote reboot for full recovery and restoration of a corrupted computer.
“We estimate that VNC has been installed on about 1 billion devices,” Byrne said, and the explosion of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones that are being used for remote work is expected to expand the market.
Using the lightweight Remote Frame Buffer protocol, VNC runs on a wide range of hardware and operating system platforms, including Windows, OSX, Linux and other Unix-based systems. The server software that delivers screen images from the remote computer is small, “a tiny download,” Byrne said. “We’ve managed to keep it simple.” It is a peer-to-peer technology, so the server and viewer communicate directly with no additional technology in the middle.
Although VNC enables remote fixes for many computing issues, there are some problems that still can require a staffer’s personal attention, Byrne said. Fixing network problems, a crashed OS or a corrupted hard drive probably will mean going to the problem site.
One area in which RealVNC, has been particularly helpful is providing the 24-hour support required by the Harbor Police Department. The job requires a background check, and there are only six or seven people on staff who are cleared for it. They are on call 24 hours a day in weekly rotations, and prior to VNC, a 1 a.m. call would require a 20-mile drive to the site for what could be a four- or five-minute fix. On-call support now has a laptop that uses Citrix to reach the work desktop, and from there VNC is used to make the fix. “Then we shut down and go to bed.”
Although VNC and the protocol it uses have remained simple, there are features that have been added over the years to improve its use in real-world environments.
“The product has improved,” Horne said. “It’s a lot better now than it used to be.” Files can be copied remotely, and it now supports views of multiple monitors, which comes in handy when working with the police department. The first versions of VNC could see only one monitor, but it now allows the remote user to pan across more than one.
The most significant changes have been in the policies that govern how the technology is used. When it was first deployed, anonymous logins were allowed, with multiple users signing in with the same password. Login now is done using Active Directory and requires individuals’ credentials so that activity can be logged and it is clear who did what to which machine.
The system now also requires the remote user to accept remote control of a machine by clicking a button before the tech staff can take over. That increases the comfort level of the user and provides level of privacy protection that satisfies IT security auditors.