Apple Remote Desktop: Management Tool Plus Teaching Assistant

Choosing Mac OS X this summer as our default operating system for new computers was a relatively easy choice for my institution. The benefits—stability, ease-of-use, security, and interoperability—all far out-weighed the complication it presented. A sticking point for us was our regular use of Apple Network Assistant (ANA) for remotely assisting our clients and managing our labs; we needed a MacOS X equivalent. With the release of Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) in February 2002, Apple addressed that need.

The beauty of ARD is its simplicity and the features it provides faculty for use in the classroom. For instance, in the absence of a good projection system, ARD allows a professor to demonstrate a skill or lecture by sharing her computer screen with all of the other computers in the classroom. A professor or lab attendant can also view up to four screens at once on their computer screen, or they could cycle through all of the computers in the room—4 screens at a time—in order to keep tabs on student progress. There are also real-time chat features that allow individual faculty and students to hold private discussions, allow a student to “raise a hand,” or allow a professor to send out classroom alerts, such as an approaching time limit on an exam.

To ensure students’ attention, a professor also has the ability to monitor computer use in the class or to lock out access to students’ computers during a lecture or presentation. And for the easy distribution of class material, a professor could send out materials to all of the computers at once. These same tools can also allow administrators to remotely assist client machines, perform upgrades, and even run software and hardware reports.

In my experience, ARD has worked exactly as I have expected. It is obvious that this initial release was aimed at bringing tools that were available under OS 9 to OS X. In managing my labs and client computers, I have found that screen sharing, file distribution, and remote application launching are the most valuable tools. It is much more efficient for me to share or control a client’s computer in order to work on a problem than it is to walk to each client machine to do the same work. Also, the fact that ARD is available in both MacOS X and MacOS 9-8.1 versions allows us to manage multiple Mac operating systems from the same workstation. (As an aside, one reason I’ve become excited about ARD is that with some custom AppleScripts I have developed, I can remotely launch one AppleScript that will send off a series of events to erase files on a lab computer or computers, and reinstall all of the necessary system and application software, all from my office computer.)

Upgrading to ARD is painless. You can install it over the current installation of ANA and it will pick up the current settings, passwords, and information fields automatically.

Although ARD provides the same basic functionality that ANA provided, there are a few useful features missing. For instance, some of the workstation configuration features are gone. Unlike ANA, you do not have the ability to change the ARD administrator’s password on the client machines, nor can you set the Energy Saver, Screen Resolution, or Date & Time settings. These features are useful when setting up a lab, in that they allow much of the setup to be handled en mass rather than setting up each workstation individually.

Also, currently missing from ARD as well as ANA is a robust software installation tool. The file copy features work well for what they do, but don’t allow for the installation of software, or an operating system, which have different pieces going to different places on the local hard drive or which require administrator access (in OS X.). In order to install a piece of software like this, the support staff would have to figure out which files needed to be placed where, and to transfer those files individually to the client computers. This still saves time on the installation process, but it is tedious and hopefully can be addressed in the future.

Finally it would be nice to see ARD combined with other Apple software to provide simple workstation re-imaging that can be done automatically and remotely, rather than having to develop our own solution, as I did.

ARD is an enabling technology from Apple. It provides helpful tools that give faculty many choices in incorporating technology into their course. Those same tools can then be used by IT or help desk staff to improve efficiency and reduce costs. And it is one of the last tools many people have been waiting for before making the transition to MacOS X.

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