The Cloud and the Need to Monitor User Activity

With the advent of server virtualization and cloud technology, there has been a need to monitor user activity.

Clean Rooms & Mainframes

Computing technology has come a long way. Its early beginnings started in clean rooms filled with large, ceiling-high mainframe computers. A separate room lined with rows of terminals on tables was for user access. Pull up a chair and log in remotely to the mainframe for your own personal computer account. You shared the system with dozens of other users, each being allocated a slice of the processor’s time and memory.

Eventually, personal computers evolved and everyone had one at home and on their desk at work. Life was good, but not necessarily for the IT departments that sprung up almost overnight to handle the never-ending stream of technical problems. The cost of owning and maintaining a mainframe was replaced with the cost of managing hundreds of personal workstations along with the multitude of software packages and optional hardware devices.

Time moves on and personal computers become more powerful, evolving into server-grade systems. Packed with processing muscle and speed, the new servers quickly overtook their predecessors, the older massive mainframes. Now it was time to move the desktops back onto the servers and off the desks of the users. Users were given terminals so they could log in remotely to their desktops. Computing technology came full circle: Virtualization was born, again.

As server technology became more compact, server farms were cultivated and cloud computing came into existence. Whole office networks could be moved into the cloud and IT departments redeployed and reduced in size. Cloud providers popped up overnight to accommodate the transition, but in the haste, some elements were forgotten about.

One of those elements was session recording. Due to the nature of remote desktop access, session recording was not a simple thing to implement. The software was needed to handle the new virtualized architectures and that is where activity monitoring software comes into the story.

Session Recording

At the very heart of remote access is the terminal server. This is a server that is configured to host user desktops using Microsoft Terminal Services, now known as Remote Desktop Services or RDS. Users log in remotely to their desktops from either a workstation or terminal using Remote Desktop Connection client software. The client software talks to the server using the Remote Desktop communications protocol or RDP. The user shares the server with other users who are all isolated and protected from each other.

In this scenario, it is possible to insert a recording service between the client and the terminal service in a typical “man-in-the-middle” configuration. In this way, the recording service intercepts all the RDP traffic and makes a copy of the session traffic. The users have no clue this is happening and their sessions are not delayed or noticeably changed in any way.

The session data is stored in a database and can be played back like a video at any time. The recording system is completely configurable and centrally managed. Each component can be located separately to accommodate almost any network configuration. Recording is limited only by the number of desktops a server can realistically host. Literally thousands of servers can be recorded in large scale environments.

It is also possible to record workstations as well as virtual machines in a hosted environment.

Would you like to learn more?

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