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Remote Mac Management on a Budget: Low-Cost Alternatives to Apple Remote Desktop

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Observing and controlling computers remotely is a great tool for systems administrators, help desk staff, teachers, and even home users. Apple Remote Desktop gives you that power and more, but if you only want the most basic remote observation and control features, there are low-cost and free options for Mac OS X. Ryan Faas gives you the best alternatives.
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Apple Remote Desktop is a great tool for systems administrators and help desk technicians. It is a premium remote management tool with a robust feature set. It also has a price tag that could give many small businesses and organizations a bit of sticker shock. Although I am a great fan of Apple Remote Desktop and advocate its use in a number of settings (see my previous series covering Remote Desktop), I also acknowledge that for many smaller organizations and consumers, using it can be cost-prohibitive.

For those situations in which you need or want to observe, control, and have basic Mac management remotely, there is a low-cost alternative. Virtual network computing (VNC) is an open source and multiplatform protocol that has been around for quite some time. VNC enables you to remotely observe and control a computer in much the same way that Apple Remote Desktop does. It doesn’t offer any of the advanced management or interaction features that make Apple Remote Desktop a stellar product, but it does give you the basic remote control and observation features.

Because it is an open source platform, VNC comes in many flavors and is available for Mac OS X, classic Mac OS versions, Windows, and Unix/Linux. And there are Java applet solutions that can be run from a website and clients designed to run on mobile devices. Its multiplatform nature actually makes VNC a more versatile tool than Remote Desktop in some ways, although this is at the expense of many of Remote Desktop’s other features. VNC is also inherently much less secure than Apple Remote Desktop.

VNC functions by using two separate software components: a VNC server component that is installed on the remote computer to be controlled and a VNC viewer that is installed on the computer that will observe and control it. The data exchanged between the two is transmitted in unencrypted form using an IP connection that can be over a local network or clear across the world using the Internet. The unencrypted nature of this connection is what makes VNC a nonsecure solution. Adding to that is the fact that VNC servers support only a single password for all remote control sessions.

Sitting between Apple Remote Desktop and VNC (from a price, security, and features perspective) is Desktop Transporter. Like Remote Desktop and VNC, Desktop Transporter enables you to observe and control a remote Mac using either the Internet or a local network. Desktop Transporter is not, however, based on VNC.

VNC Servers

There are several VNC servers available for Mac OS X, including the Apple Remote Desktop client that is built into Mac OS X. Using the Apple Remote Desktop client might be the optimal solution for many users. However, other VNC servers offer an easier method enabling or disabling remote access to the computer, which can be useful in a situation in which remote management is being performed as a help desk solution, as well as more-advanced configuration options. Also there are reports of some non-Mac VNC clients, particularly Java clients not working properly with the Apple Remote Desktop client software when it is configured to act as a VNC server.

Vine Server

Vine Server(originally called OSXvnc) is probably the most popular VNC server for Mac OS X outside of the Apple Remote Desktop client. It is a fairly robust open source solution that offers a number of advanced features, including setting the port number used for VNC connections; enabling user- or system-level functionality (a system-level VNC server remains running regardless of which users log in or out of the computer); supporting limiting remote connections to only those established using an SSH tunnel; and, when paired with the Vine Viewer, allowing text and other clipboard contents to be transferred between the two computers. It also optionally supports observation and control by multiple computers and Apple’s Bon Jour networking so that remote computers on a local subnet can be automatically detected without needing to know their IP address to connect.

Share My Desktop

Share My Desktop is a free application that makes the configuration and use of the Apple Remote Desktop client as a VNC server much easier and more powerful. Share My Desktop is particularly attractive for help desk situations in which you might not want to leave a VNC server running on every computer on your network all the time because of its inherent security concerns but want to have an easy solution for allowing a technician to occasionally observe or control a computer for troubleshooting purposes. The Share My Desktop main window includes a button to turn VNC sharing on or off at a user level and it displays the computer’s IP address, VNC port number, and current password. By default, Share My Desktop creates a new random password each time VNC sharing is turned on. The simple, user-friendly interface with the required information to connect plainly displayed make it a solution that any user can operate and relay to a help desk technician. Share My Desktop also offers a system-level VNC server and a handful of additional options.

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