Symantec Norton HelpDesk Assistant

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail

Published by: Symantec, go to the web site
Requires: (Administrator) Windows NT4 (SP3 or higher), P166 or higher, 64MB RAM, 120MB hard disk space, MS Management Console 1.1, IE4.01 or higher, Remote Procedure Call enabled; (Clients) Windows 3.1/DOS (386/286 CPU, 8MB RAM, 20MB hard disk space), Windows 95/98 (486/66MHz CPU or higher, 16MB RAM, 175MB hard disk space), Windows NT4 Workstation (486/66MHz CPU or higher, 24MB RAM, 175MB hard disk space)
MSRP: US$115/per seat for 100 seats

The technical support from software and hardware manufacturers that most of us understand is a matter for conjecture, demand, argument, endless waiting on the telephone, days of waiting for an e-mail response, off-the-shelf responses (most of the time), dissatisfaction (often because of our own technical ineptness), and sometimes outright anger and a tirade directed at someone who's just doing a very difficult job. Occasionally we get the answers we need very quickly, exchanging pleasantries with the helpful person at the other end of a telephone call or an e-mail response.

There's another kind of technical support though - the kind that often makes the difference between a company project being finished on time, or being disastrously late. The largest corporate networks resemble nothing so much as large clusters of users gathered in one concentrated mass, all pounding away at similar sets of software and operating systems, usually making use of a fabulous hodge-podge of hardware and creative influences.

It's a fascinating circumstance, but it can also make a person cry - especially when something goes wrong. Picture yourself as a momentarily important cog in some giant corporate machine. You've got to meet a deadline (finish a PowerPoint presentation, finish a creative brief with fancy graphics, complete a technical spec, layout an overview of an ad campaign, update some giant spreadsheet, write some code, etc.), and at the worst possible moment something crashes on you, or your system locks up, and all you get out of a reboot is the sinking feeling that your computer is *really* unstable, the files you were working on are lost for all time, and the inexorably creeping chill of realization which goes hand in hand with abject panic.

What do you do?

In traditional corporate environments you can call an Information Services or Information Technologies (IS/IT) person and beg for help. You promise the person an entire week of free lunches if they will only drop what they're doing at that moment and fix your computer. You promise to give them a huge Christmas present. You promise to pay their children's college tuition; anything to get help. In some companies you may even find an Operator; someone assigned specifically to remedy difficult problems. This person is often not motivated by the same panic as that which grips you at some importune moment. Most Operators (sitting in an office often called the Help Desk) invariably display a different set of priorities from the ones which are driving you at any particular moment.

Life as only a single cell of a giant corporate hydra can really suck sometimes.

So what do you do? There's always suicide of course, but the latest trends in corporate culture seem to eschew the use of ceremonial swords at lunch time. The problems remain, the problems are legion, and the solutions are usually beyond the means of most of us.

There are other problems too, looking at things from a different perspective. As a hard-working IS/IT manager, what the heck do you do when its time to roll out Office 2000 across an entire local 1000 seat network and all of the remote laptops (or across a 50, 60, 100, or 500 seat network for that matter)? Few IS/IT or Operations departments these days have the budgets to afford a dozen or more staff who can be deployed to install upgrades. Concurrently, very executive, management, accounting, marketing, and other employees across any enterprise can be trusted to devote the time necessary to properly install upgrades or new applications at their own workstations themselves. So how the heck does the IS/IT department unsure that upgrades are fully and properly installed on every single computer in the network? Do short-staffed IS/IT departments have to visit every single workstation to ensure that upgrades are fully and properly installed in a timely manner? Up until recently, that was certainly the case.

Symantec has recognized all of the foregoing deep-rooted problems and has ridden to the rescue with something called Norton HelpDesk Assistant. It's a rather simple, straightforward and effective approach to a vast, pervasive 'network' of productivity software and operating system problems.

Symantec Norton HelpDesk Assistant allows support staffs to not only take over remote or directly networked desktops, but to quickly diagnose and fix PC problems. In typical medium to large network environments (500-5,000 PCs), an employee reporting trouble with some piece of software or howling about some perceived OS aggravation will be greeted with what's commonly known as a Trouble Ticket (TT); essentially a service order which is issued describing the problem. The TT is placed into a priority system which eventually spits it out again in the direction of some IS person or Operator who will (if they're not waylaid by some other person with an even more urgent problem) haul off to the offending workstation. HelpDesk helps to eliminate the long waits associated with overworked IS staff and Operators, by providing remote access to networked and remote workstations and a deeply comprehensive set of software analysis and repair tools.

Setting up this type of Help Desk environment might seem like a complex task to undertake, but Symantec has taken a 'let's not rediscover the wheel' type of approach. Using a client/server type of design to take advantage of traditional networking, various control computers (servers) on an NT network are set up with the Norton System Center part of the HelpDesk suite. System Center can be used to remotely access networked PCs, and to install and configure software on PCs throughout the network. The control and workstation PCs are set up with pcAnywhere 32, which allows help desk staff to remotely access all the PCs on the network. pcAnywhere 32 helps eliminate a large number of desktop/office visits to solve problems. Each PC in the network is also equipped with Norton Utilities, Symantec's well-known product designed solely for optimization and trouble shooting of independent or networked PCs. The fourth software application in the HelpDesk suite is something called Norton Ghost. It's a highly useful little utility which allows you to clone a hard drive setup (OS, installed software, etc., etc.), then literally re-image a whole series of hard drives thereby creating identical setups on each one. For network administrators, identical base systems created with Ghost are a genuine blessing because the analysis 'playing field' is leveled. The software set up and configuration becomes a standardized (and therefore more clearly understood) factor.

The Symantec Norton HelpDesk Assistant CD also contains Norton CrashGuard and Norton AntiVirus as part of the general Norton Utilities installation. Both of these utilities are industry standards, and Norton AntiVirus in particular is widely regarded as the best application in its class.

Although the Proton Research network is small (60 PC workstations driving a dozen servers) we decided to do a full installation of HelpDesk. We already use Norton Utilities and Ghost to reduce problems, so the Symantec approach to things was not unfamiliar. Full remote access to network PCs was a new experience however, and pcAnywhere 32 certainly lived up to its billing as an industry-leading remote access tool. Installation of pcAnywhere 32 is essentially a two-step process: the Client must be installed on individual workstations and the Host application must be installed on the main control server being used to access and service the individual workstations.

In an effort to stress HelpDesk we set up a series of problems simultaneously throughout the network:

1 - E-mail virus EXE attachments on workstations without anti-virus protection.

2 - Word file attachments containing known macro virii on workstations without anti-virus protection.

3 - Beta software installations with known priority one bugs (crashes).

4 - Heavily fragmented hard drives on 10 workstations.

5 - Software installed and run without a system re-start.

6 - Miscellaneous natural problems which occur on a daily basis in a 60 seat network, including the failure of staff to backup documents stored on local hard drives, and instabilities introduced by installations of unauthorized software (games, utilities, etc.)

Problem 1 & 2 - Remotely installing Norton AntiVirus on individual workstations throughout the network proved to be extremely easy. An internal phone call to IS/IT and a description of the problems allowed IS/IT staff to target Outlook 98 and Exchange Server with ease. In the course of remedying problem 2, we actually discovered a research assistant who was still using Office 95 (when the person should have upgraded to Office 97 more than a year ago). A remote upgrade was done, and IS/IT subsequently checked all systems on the network to ensure compliance with enterprise-wide software standards. A variety of non-compliant systems were discovered and upgraded (and in one case an entire workstation system was replaced).

Problem 3 - Norton System Utilities were triggered remotely to help analyze problems with low-level applications (Explorer, System Tray, and so on, as well as known-flaky beta software), which in some cases resulted in instructions to restart or cold boot a workstation. Determinations were easily made about the reason for the crashes. IS/IT remotely identified problem software and only after that identification was made did the workstation user reveal a confirmation (we kept all problems confidential so that IS/IT ended up being restricted to HelpDesk). IS/IT almost immediately created an 'All Staff' e-mail forbidding the installation of unauthorized beta software.

Problem 4 - Once again, Norton Utilities were used to diagnose the cause of very slow operation. We actually did not set this up deliberately; there really were at least 10 workstations with one or two heavily fragmented hard drives each. In all situations IS/IT ran SpeedDisk to defrag the hard drives after each person was done with their workstation for the day. One workstation hard drive was so badly fragmented that it had to be re-Ghosted (it only took 1 hour to backup the document directory, re-format the hard drive and Ghost a standard setup back onto it. Going through the (in this case extremely lengthy) defragging process might have taken all night. In such situations it's typical for a hard drive to trigger a thermal shut down from the endless thrashing, making it likely that the defragmentation process might never finish. Ghosting a prepared setup onto the drive is a fast, easy solution for workstations which rarely have anything more than a standard setup installed for regular use. Some workstations will have users who require lots of ancillary software, so re-Ghosting such machines can mean lots of downtime while the user re-installs all the extra stuff. In those cases, IS has to decide whether or not the potential for an unsuccessful defrag (and the time needed to repeat the process) outweighs the amount of time needed to re-Ghost the system and install the extras again.

Problem 5 - Plenty of employees in a variety of enterprises have not been properly trained in the art of software installation. If you're using Windows, you've got to restart your computer after installing just about anything. Fail to do so and you risk creating an unstable working environment. Too few companies train their staff on anything computer-related (and even computer companies often hire people who are less computer literate than they should be). HelpDesk was used to remedy a bunch of small problems which resulted from a lack of computer literacy including such things as documents and data files strewn all over the main hard drive rather than organized properly in a subdivided documents directory.

Problem 6 - It was a pleasure to be able to remotely access individual workstations and set up automatic backups of document directories. Far too many people fail to organize regular backups, and in a busy research office that is an unacceptable state of affairs. pcAnywhere 32 allowed the same IS/IT people who had previously sweated through various Undelete-type file rescue missions, to avoid much of the need for such efforts by simply setting up automatic nightly backup routines on various workstations. The problem of unauthorized software installed on company workstations was remedied by simple deletions and a subsequent registry clean up. The hue and cry over invasions of privacy died down after it was pointed out that the 'wounded' individuals didn't actually own the PCs or the network. Some may argue, but the fact remains that most companies pay their staff to work on company projects rather than spending time playing games, surfing for pornography, and other non-business related pursuits.

Cons: True remote control over Windows on workstations is not quite here yet. pcAnywhere 32 should evolve into something perfect in the not too distant future however. pcAnywhere 32 can be used to poke around in workstations and will invariably reveal things that just shouldn't be there. There are a few moral, legal, and ethical problems which arise in such situations and IS/IT managers, CEOs, Operations managers, HR managers and others need to create strict rules and regulations governing how deeply the company can poke into staff workstations. If Operations has the responsibility for overseeing IS/IT in most corporate environments, then the Operations manager or director has an obligation to keep a very close eye indeed on how effectively and legally tools like pcAnywhere 32 are being used. IS/IT managers and administrators who have some greater independent authority will do well to inform themselves about just how far they can pry into ostensibly private areas of networked PCs.

Pros: pcAnywhere 32, despite some reservations, is a powerful tool; it's AutoXfer feature can be used to automatically transfer and synchronize files across a variety of systems to ensure access to the most current versions (a very important need in a research office). In addition, deploying pre-configured software updates across the network was an IS/IT dream come true. The days when various workstations on a network were running disparate (and sometimes incompatible) versions of some enterprise-standard software should be long gone. For busy IS/IT, Operations, and general network and Help Desk-type support departments, Symantec Norton HelpDesk Assistant is an excellent, robust, package which can quickly and easily be deployed across an enterprise. The result will be less downtime, more efficient, reliable, and productive staff, and faster solutions to previously time-consuming problems. Symantec Norton HelpDesk Assistant is highly recommended for administrators of small, medium, and large networks.

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