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Remote support options for sysadmins

Remote support often feels like you're trying to wash dishes from across the room. Find out how to get closer to the sink and your users.
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Remote support tools

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As a sysadmin, you do support—support for local users as level I, II, III, or all of the above. You might have even supported remote users. Maybe your office environment was once 100 percent local and you had no remote support duties. But now, your job might be completely supporting remote users and systems. Great news, huh? Well, there's hope. Using some great remote support tools, you can still do your job just as efficiently from a distance as you could with walk-up access. Sure, it's a little more difficult, but once you establish your support tools and workflow, you might never return to a traditional office. This article highlights support tools for a new age of remote support.

Remote support is difficult. To get an idea of just how difficult it is, I've only known one person in more than twenty years of working as a sysadmin who actually enjoyed supporting remote users. It was great for the rest of the team because we could just reassign tickets to him and away he'd go on them. For the rest of us, we felt like we were trying to wash dishes from across the room without really seeing the dishes. These remote support options will help you support your users without the frustration of a click-by-click follow-along session. You'll be able to see everything that's going on or actually perform the work yourself.

It's unfortunate but a lot of users can't tell you what they see on their screens. For example, one of my colleagues once yelled at a remote user because the user wasn't able to communicate what he saw on his own screen. He was assisting this remote user with opening a file from a mapped network drive.

"Sir, do you see the word 'file' at the top of your screen? No? Do you have Microsoft Word open? OK, so at the top left of your screen, you see the word, 'file'. What do you mean you don't see it? You do see it. Yes, you do, it's at the top left of your screen!"

I stopped listening when he began yelling and somehow he and the end-user made it work. And to my surprise, my colleague didn't even get a reprimand for yelling at a user. Ah, the 1990s were the golden age of IT supremacy. I digress.

The point here is to illustrate how frustrating remote support can be even under the best circumstances. Fortunately, there are contemporary tools and technologies that remove many of the barriers of those less than thrilling days of yesteryear.

Virtual Private Networks

A virtual private network (VPN) is a secure gateway to your corporate network. It requires at least one dedicated VPN server to authenticate and pass users through to internal network jump servers or directly into the network itself. If done correctly, users will have the same experience through the VPN that they do when connected to the local network, although possibly a little slower.

There are several products, both commercial and open source that are available to help you set up a VPN. If you use Active Directory (AD) at your company to authenticate users, you can integrate your VPN with AD. There are plugins or direct support for it in most popular VPN solutions.

Remember to warn your users to not use public WiFi without first connecting to the VPN, especially on mobile devices. The VPN is your first line of defense for remote work security and seamless internal network access.

Video conferencing tools

Believe it or not, video conferencing tools are excellent for helping remote users. These days, everyone has some sort of video conferencing tool installed on their systems. Rather than messing with walking a remote user through setting up a firewall rule on their home router, modern conferencing tools have a feature where the remote user can not only share their screens but you can request control so that you can operate their computers. This feature saves you time and your sanity. You no longer have to guide the user through a series of steps to accomplish something, you can just jump on and do it yourself and show them what to do. 

The only activities that are required of a user are to allow you to control their computers and then to reclaim control when you're done. Please have your user stay at the computer because some conferencing software can't "see" certain dialogs and the user will have to respond to them. I know you want to work anonymously but you should be on the phone with the user and let them know what you're doing while you're working on their computer.

Remote management tools

If you have a VPN, a jump box, or a cloud provider portal, then you probably have everything you need to perform remote management on your server systems. But, even if you do have those amenities, you might still find value in some other remote tools. There are web-based management tools, management suites, command line tools, and agent-based tools that allow you to manage your systems from a mobile phone and from anywhere.

Be sure that your remote management tools are secured with HTTPS, VPN, or other encryption means. You don't need a malicious actor "managing" your systems remotely for you.

Wrapping up

These essential tools will create a new remote work situation that both satisfies you and supports your users and servers. Remote work can be rewarding, fun, safe, and also isolating. Don't separate yourself too much from other people. Be sure to connect with colleagues and users often to keep that human interaction going. I know that our sysadmin personalities are OK with non-human interaction, but it isn't healthy. 

Use the tools that work best for you and your users. Don't force a technology onto your user base. Work with them and use something that works for both of you, unless you have a company standard application that enables remote support.

[ Suddenly wondering how you might run your business from the cloud?  Check out Hybrid Cloud Strategy for Dummies, a free e-book from Red Hat. ]

Topics:   Remote work   Sysadmin culture  
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Ken Hess

Ken Hess is an Enable SysAdmin Community Manager and an Enable SysAdmin contributor. Ken has used Red Hat Linux since 1996 and has written ebooks, whitepapers, actual books, thousands of exam review questions, and hundreds of articles on open source and other topics. More about me

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