How to get more out of your old PCs

Old computer

Are you spending too much time installing and updating your applications? Do you need a simple mechanism that allows users to run network applications from home? Are you struggling to find the money to replace your old workstations? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Remote Desktop Services (RDS) may be the solution.

In this article I'll show how installing RDS can save money, reduce the time taken to install and maintain applications, and increase the functionality of your system.

An overview of RDS

RDS, previously called Terminal Services, allow you to run server-based applications over your network or across the internet. The fundamentals of the technology are simple. When a user connects to a server, the Remote Desktop Session Host service presents either a full desktop or the individual applications.

The processing is done on the server: any key presses or mouse movements are sent from the workstation to the server, and any changes to the screen are sent back to the workstation.

Many users can connect simultaneously to an RD Session Host server, and each will have their own session. Providing there's a network connection to a server with an appropriate specification, most people won't notice the difference between running an application on their workstation and running it remotely.

Disk drives on the workstations can also be redirected to the RD Session Host server (see step 1 in the walkthrough), so users can access all their normal resources. All printers available on the workstation should appear on the server (see step 2) without any complicated configuration, thanks to Easy Print, which was introduced in Windows Server 2008.

Software made easy

On most networks, each application is installed on every workstation. For small networks this is often a time-consuming manual task. Distributing applications through Active Directory Group Policies or using a mechanism such as System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) can help, but the process of creating packages for these systems isn't always straightforward. Plus, updates to the software must also be installed or packaged manually.

With an RD Session Host server, applications need be installed, configured and tested only once. Most well-behaved applications run on an RD Session Host server with little or no extra configuration.

Any updates or configuration changes need only be applied once, and when you add new machines, you don't need to install any applications on them, so they're up and running in no time.

Users can either run a full desktop UI, which in effect sits in front of the normal desktop, or use RemoteApp (introduced in Windows Server 2008). This allows applications to run from the server, but they appear as if they're running on the workstation. RemoteApps can be launched from shortcuts or from a web page if the Remote Desktop Web Access role service is added to the server (see step 3).

From a support point of view, there's the added benefit that you can take over a session with Remote Desktop Services Manager (see step 4). Users working on the Session Host server are less likely to save files to their own PCs, reducing the chance of data being taken outside the office and simplifying backups.