What to do when Remote Desktop Connection doesn’t work

remotedesktopRemote Desktop Sharing is a very cool feature of Windows XP. It is turned on in a default installation of XP. But after you have tweaked it a little, you might not be able to connect to the machine remotely. I suggest in this article some nooks and crannies where you might look for the proverbial rat.

I really like RDS. Remote Desktop/Terminal Services was what convinced me to accept an internship at Microsoft back when I was in college. Back then, Windows didn’t have anything comparable to a remote X session which has existed on X Window (UNIX) for decades. I first saw Remote Desktop 1.5 years before XP was released, and I was smitten. I took up the internship thinking I’ll be working on that technology, but I learnt the hard way that you need to be very certain you know the job before you accept it. Long story short, I didn’t work on Remote Desktop and hated the work I did at Microsoft. Anyway, enough with that – let’s talk about solving issues with RDS.

Troubleshooting Remote Desktop Sharing

The first thing you need to look at is whether Remote Desktop is allowed on your computer. You need the ‘System Properties’ Control Panel applet. You can get to it from Control Panel->System or by selecting Properties from the My Computer context menu (Right click on My Computer, select Properties). Head on over to the ‘Remote’ tab and make sure the ‘Allow users to connect remotely to this computer’ checkbox is checked.

If that didn’t solve the problem, the next culprit might be the ‘Server’ service. It is in the Services list under Control Panel->Administrative Tools. Scroll down the list and make sure the ‘Server’ service has the status of ‘Started’ and the Startup Type is ‘Automatic’.

At this point, you should at least be able to get a login prompt when you try to connect. The next step is to make sure you have an account with a password. The default XP installation creates a user with Administrator rights and no password. You cannot log in as this user – the account you use to login to Remote Desktop has to have a password. So, either create a new user with non-admin rights and a password purely for remote access purposes or give your admin-equivalent account a password. If you use a non-admin account and need to perform some tasks that require admin rights, the proper thing to do is use the runas command and get yourself a admin command prompt. This is almost like a root shell in UNIX/Linux. I say almost because you can’t really do everything from an Admin shell in Windows. Maybe I’ll touch on this subject in another post.

So, in order of importance, make sure 1) Users are allowed to connect remotely, 2) The ‘Server’ service is running and 3) you have a login with a non-empty password.

Enabling Remote File Sharing

When using RDS, it’s very helpful to also be able to share files remotely. Criterion (3) above must be met for file sharing as well, so hopefully you have that in place. But you also need to make sure of 2 other things. First, you have ‘Simple File Sharing’ disabled. You can do that by firing up Windows Explorer and going to Tools->Folder Options->View (tab). The last option in the ‘Advanced Settings’ list reads ‘Use simple file sharing (Recommended)’. Wrong! So not recommended! Simple File Sharing is really dumbed down and a pain in the neck. If you uncheck that box and right click on a folder, you should see a ‘Sharing and Security’ option. You need to have administrator rights to see that though. If you are not logged in as an admin user, but do have the admin password, you can use runas to get an admin  command prompt. Then, run mmc and add the ‘Computer Management’ snap in. There is a Shared Folders option in the left pane. You can manage your shared folders from this window. The sharing options are pretty straightforward, I think, so I’m not going into details on that.

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