Apple Remote Desktop 3
8th May 2006 | 23:00
Manage your Macs as if by magic
Anyone who's tried to manage more than one Mac at a time knows what a pain it can be.
Upgrading software, setting preferences, running maintenance scripts - it all has to be done many times. If those are work Macs, you have to traipse around a building or between sites. It's for all these reasons that companies with numerous Macs tend to buy a copy of Apple Remote Desktop.
ARD, as it's known in the business, is a combination of tools. For helpdesk staff, it's the ultimate user-removal tool. Not only can you view the screen of the user on the other end of the phone line to see what they can see, you can control their Mac and fix it for them.
For sys admins, it's a great way to install software without having to be at the Macs: select the computers you want to install the software on, select the software and ARD will do the rest. And for the IT manager who wants to know which Mac has which hardware and software, the reporting tools are a real time-saver.
It's curtains for Apple
ARD 2 had a good feature set, but ARD 3 adds to the list considerably, particularly if you've made the move to Tiger. For helpdesk staff, the big improvement has been the addition of a 'Curtain mode'.
Previous versions allowed you to view and control the mouse and keyboard of any Mac in ARD's list of computers, but you can now stop the end user from seeing what's going on, locking the screen and putting up a message to prevent interference.
Another useful feature is the ability to drag and drop files between your own Mac and the controlled Mac's screen, and the ability to copy and paste text and images - handy for entering software serial numbers from your own Mac's database into new apps that need registering.
Performance seems to have improved as well, with the slow screen redraw rate of previous versions much better this time. Similarly, some of the issues around using ARD to control and monitor Windows and Linux machines using VNC have been fixed, although there's no equivalent to the ARD client for either platform yet.
Just for Macs
This makes ARD pretty much an admin tool only for Macs - and Macs with OS X 10.3.9 or later. With many companies' operating system update cycle still running at three to six years, that makes ARD 3 quite exclusive in what it's going to work with effectively.
For sys admins, there's now the ability to run any UNIX commands you like, as whatever user you like, on any machines. For anyone familiar with the command line, this is a massive time-saver: no more having to enable Remote Login on each Mac, remember an ID and password for each machine, and work through the standard sudo/su combos before running the commands.
The remote installer tool has been improved to allow for data encryption and bandwidth throttling, ensuring that admin tasks don't swamp the network. Perhaps most impressive of all is the ability to schedule software updates for mobile devices: if a laptop connects to the network, ARD can automatically install designated software as soon as it spots the laptop.
The remote copying facility has also been enhanced. This allows you to copy files to any location on a remote Mac, forcing the Mac to open them if necessary.
Apple has boosted copy speeds, although the promised 11x were outside our reach. In combination with the installer tool, updating most apps remotely is possible with ARD.
However, since the installer tool only works with Apple's .pkg and .mpkg files, not custom installers such as InstallerVISE, there is still going to be a class of programs that need to be updated manually, maybe using the 'Curtain mode'.
ARD isn't going to be a panacea for installation issues, although industrious admins will no doubt find clever solutions to most problems.
One particularly nice feature is the task server option. This allows one Mac on the network to run as a server for ARD instructions: the admin sets up tasks that need to be performed on or by individual Macs and passes them to the task server. When the client machines appear on the network, the server automatically performs the tasks.
It can also act as a data gathering point for the various data reports that IT managers can request. Since Apple has wisely chosen to change the port that ARD's built-in PostgresQL report database uses, you can now run ARD on a server without any difficulties.
Indeed, for the paranoid IT manager, ARD has a welcome new set of features. User history reports let you know who's been logging onto which machines, at what times and how.
There's similar mileage to be gained from the Application Usage reports, so you can find out which applications have been used and by whom.
We found that ARD didn't work especially well at either of these two tasks without having a task server on the network for the automatic collection of data. More often than not, a whole host of application launches and logins weren't recorded, and when they were, ARD only reported the most recent usage, making it hard to drill down into data to track down the patterns of bad behaviour.
ARD really comes into its own, though, with Tiger technologies.
You can search for files on any other OS X 10.4 Mac on your network using its Spotlight integration. There's a Dashboard widget, so you can bring up the monitor of any machine with the click of a button. There are also 30 Automator actions for automating tasks.
Indeed, the whole application has had a Tiger makeover, complete with Mail/iTunes interface.
This extends to Smart Lists of computers, although the selection criteria are quite limited: we'd have liked to have seen support for things like computer status (sleeping, online, etc), whether there are particular applications installed, their network connection type, whether the machine is a portable and so on.
Overall then, this is a solid, robust upgrade. Apple is being a little cheeky - as always - by not offering an upgrade discount, but Apple Remote Desktop 3 remains a compelling choice for ARD 2 users, nevertheless.
There are still some flaws in the software: anyone with a mixed platform environment or with a range of pre-OS X 10.3 Macs is going to have to look for additional management tools; Apple could do a better of job of working with third-party installers; and some of the new reports are too basic.
But the more Macs you have, particularly ones equipped with Tiger, the more ARD is going to be a necessity as well as a luxury. Rob Buckley