System managers have a burning desire to manage their Windows servers from afar. It's understandable, given that servers can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away in a data centre or a remote office.

There are a number of ways to achieve this goal, of which the simplest is to install a remote control software package on each server and access it from a workstation. We'll look at some of the more popular choices for remote control packages.

Symantec PCAnywhere
PCAnywhere is the daddy of remote control packages, and even though there are freeware and even in-built remote control facilities in Windows today, PCAnywhere maintains its presence in the market simply by doing stuff that the others don't.

The system can listen on either a network interface or a serial (COM) port, and there are a bunch of extra tools such as built-in bidirectional file transfers and a text chat system. The latter sounds fairly pointless for remote control, but those of us who have sent a grunt to the remote data centre to do stuff that can't be done remotely (eg. hardware changes) know the value of this facility.

PCAnywhere 11.0 is available from Symantec's online store for £154.99.

VNC is the best-known freeware remote control package out there today. Its origins are in AT&T's research labs, though current development is carried out under the RealVNC banner. VNC is very simple to use, but it is just remote control - you don't get any of the extra frills of, say, PCAnywhere. This said, you can implement those using other inexpensive packages should you need them.

VNC runs on pretty well any Windows machine, and on others such as Macs and Unix machines. There's even clients for Palm, Pocket PC and mobile phones such as the Nokia Communicator. So it's more a general remote control tool than a server-only tool. It's also useful for watching what users are doing without interrupting, as sessions can be run in read-only mode.

RealVNC can be downloaded here.

Windows Terminal Services
Modern versions of Windows (Windows 2000 onwards) ship with a feature called Windows Terminal Services. WTS can be used in two modes: Application Server, where users log in and use programs as a thin-client, or Remote Administration, which allows system administrators to manage the device from a distance. Although WTS in application server mode requires additional licences, the remote admin mode doesn't - it's thrown in as a handy tool for the system manager.

In order to connect to WTS, you need appropriate client software. This ships with Windows XP, but can be downloaded for other Windows versions from Microsoft's Web site. Incidentally, Windows XP Professional includes a variant on WTS which allows a support person to manage the desktop remotely, but the desktop user has to invite the IT person to connect instead of the latter initiating the connection themselves.

More information on WTS can be found here for Windows 2000 Server and here for Windows Server 2003.

The Remote Desktop Client (which you'll need to connect from Windows 2000 and earlier) is available for download here.

RAdmin is another commercial third-party tool. Although it's not free, you do get some extra functions that aren't there on the non-paid-for packages, notably file transfer facilities. You can also shut down the remote computer without having to connect in full screen mode, and there's a handy Telnet-style interface which gives you a DOS box on the remote screen in a window on your workstation – again without having to muck about in full-screen remote control.

Like PCAnywhere and VNC, you're also not restricted to managing servers with RAdmin – it's just as happy to control Windows 95, 98 or ME.

RAdmin costs US$35 per licence. It can be purchased from Famatech's Web site, where a 30-day evaluation version is also available for download.

Which one?
If all you want to do is manage Windows server settings remotely, WTS is the easiest option. For general system management (ie. to control desktops as well as servers) VNC is the easiest, and certainly the cheapest. If you want a more complete set of features (file transfer being the main one) then RAdmin is the answer - it's not as well-known as PCAnywhere, but is much cheaper. Finally, PCAnywhere does stuff that the others don't, not least serial connectivity, so if you need these advanced features the option is there for you.