Hidden underneath Windows 7’s quiet Aero exterior are several important improvements for Windows’ network admins. Some of the changes, like the new Home Group sharing utility, are easy to find, but many others are hidden deeper.
Before we can get to the networking feature that’s closest to the surface, HomeGroup, we need to introduce another Windows 7 feature that helps make it useful: Libraries.
Windows 7 Libraries are meta-folders that let you gather files from multiple sources into a single folder view. From a user’s viewpoint, this is just another folder. But the technically knowledgeable will recognize that it’s actually an indexed view of files that can be from almost any place your networked Windows 7 system can get to. So, for example, if you had photos of your company’s real estate holdings on your hard drive, an external drive, and your office-mate’s hard drive, you could use the “Photos” library to show you the photos from all these locations.
By default, Windows 7 comes with four “local” Libraries: Documents, Photos, Videos, and Music – a set that probably sounds familiar. These are Windows 7’s take on My Documents. The key difference is that while you can place files in these directories, you can also use them as a quick way to get to similar files no matter where they’re located.
Once you’ve placed entered the photo’s locations in the Photos Library, you don’t need to worry about it anymore. Any photos placed in the various directories automatically appear in your Photos Library. The same, of course, is true of any other kind of file that you track with a Library.
While Libraries are a handy way to track files scattered hither and yon, you can also use them to help you clean up your records. For example, if you often clean up your photos with PhotoShop Elements or the like, you might also want to archive the originals. Just set up a Library for “Original Photos,” set it up so it tracks the folders where you’ve been keeping your untouched snapshots—Springfield properties, South Park properties, etc. — and, presto, instant photo archives.
Handy right? With HomeGroup, Microsoft’s latest take on peer-to-peer networking, network administrators can make Libraries available to other Windows 7 users. So, for example, if you choose to let others get at your Original Photos archive you can make it a publicly available folder and other people on the network can access your photos. HomeGroup also lets you share printers.
You’ve heard this before. With peer-to-peer networking you could do this kind of thing with Windows starting way back with Windows for Workgroups in 1992. However, Microsoft has added several improvements to this style of networking this time around. First, HomeGroup requires password security before PCs can be connected. Once set-up, you can also require users to enter a password before accessing HomeGroup files. In the past, Windows made it far too easy to set up a home network that was also open to amateur hackers. A HomeGroup network is much more secure than its predecessors.
HomeGroup is also easy to set up, thanks to the set-up wizard and configuration dialogs. By default, all a computer’s Libraries are shared. However, Windows 7 makes it easy to decide what to share, and what not to share. You can also share individual folders, but why bother? Libraries are a handier way to do that. Users and administrators also have the option of letting other people only view Library files rather than edit if, for example, you don’t trust someone to make a copy of the photo originals for editing.
HomeGroup isn’t just about file and print though. With the Advanced Sharing dialog, admins can set up network discovery to enable other network users to find a user’s Libraries and printers, and watch or listen to media with built-in media sharing . Last, but not least, unlike earlier takes on Windows peer-to-peer, a PC can be a member of both a HomeGroup and a business-style domain or AD (Active Directory) network.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that HomeGroups can only have Windows 7 members. Windows XP, Macintoshes, even Windows Vista, need not apply. Still, if you’re moving all your company’s PCs to Windows 7, it’s a darn handy, and really easy, way to set up networking.
What’s that you say? You’re having trouble with your HomeGroup? Then, why not ask a friend for some help? Oh, your tech support desk is 500-miles away? No problem!
With Easy Connect and its underlying PNRP (Peer Name Resolution Protocol), your helpdesk, with your permission, can remotely connect to your Windows 7 PC and fix your problem. This is so much nicer than going through the “What do you see on your screen now?” back-and-forth that so many of us have suffered through over the years.
Remote Assistance did the same kind of work in Windows XP and Windows Vista. Easy Connect tells you what it adds to the mix right from its name: it’s easy. It’s also secure. Besides password security, Easy Connect uses Windows 7’s built-in Teredo IPv6 network protocol tunneling over the Internet to provide securer connections between yourself and your helpful friend.
You may not need your IT department’s ’s help with networking problems though. Windows 7 comes with an update on Vista’s diagnose and repair, called “Fix a network problem.” This automatic check and fix won’t solve all your network problems, but it’s useful for cleaning up the most common issues.
Location Aware Printing
So far, most of Windows 7’s new networking features we’ve looked at have been more for home users than for business users. Worry not: Windows 7 has lots for business users and network administrators as well.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re always taking your business laptop to home and back to work again. With Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate, you can now use Location Aware Printing to automatically switch your printers depending on where you are.
With this you can set up your printers as you ordinarily would but then take it one step further by assigning printers to different locations. Once done, Windows 7 take care of the rest. If you’re at home, it automatically sends your print jobs to your study’s printer; if you’re at work, it sends it to your office’s default printer. No fuss, no muss. (See Lynn Greiner’s article Office and Away, for more on this feature.)
View Available Networks
Users on the road will also appreciate Windows 7’s new VAN (View Available Network feature. With this, you get a clear, easy-to-use look at all the available network options. Wi-Fi? Got it. VPN (virtual private network)? Check. 3G connect? Over here. You get the idea. It’s a little feature, but it’s also a very useful one.
URL-based Quality of Service
Quality of Service (QoS) is invisible to Windows 7 users, but network administrators should be very interested in knowing that with Windows 7 you can now set up QoS policies based on Web addresses, also known as URLs. With this feature, a system manager can set things up so that, for example, traffic from the local branch’s SharePoint server or the corporate server that hosts training videos gets higher network priority than does, say, YouTube. Matt will still dance but at a slower bandwidth.
With more and more applications hosted on servers and the growth of Software as a Service (SaaS), the easier it is for administrators to make sure that high-priority network traffic gets through, the better.
There are some network features in Windows 7 that only people who pick up the Enterprise Edition will get to see. And, of these, the most important really shine only when you’re also using Windows Server 2008 R2. Perhaps the most useful of these is DirectAccess. This, in essence, is a IPSec VPN that runs, thanks to Teredo again, over IPv6 on ordinary IPv4-base LANs and the Internet.
Although Microsoft says DirectAccess isn’t a VPN, really it is. What’s important though isn’t the semantics: It’s that DirectAccess provides both VPN services and a way for network admins to push software updates and modify Group Policies to a user’s laptop even if he’s a thousand miles away from your company’s nearest IT gal. DirectAccess also lets network administrators have the option of letting laptops go directly to the Internet for most of users’ network needs and only sending and receiving office traffic through DirectAccess. In contrast, with ordinary VPNs, once you’re on it, all your traffic gets routed through the office even if just checking our the nearby restaurant’s menu.
The other important Windows 7 Enterprise Edition/Windows Server 2008 R2 feature is BranchCache. This takes the old networking cache idea of keeping a local copy of frequently accessed information and puts a Windows 7 spin on it. With BranchCache, if you and your co-workers all start looking at the same corporate document a lot, a local copy is made and kept in your branch’s Server 2008 R2 Server. Or, if you don’t have one of those — and this is the really interesting bit — you can use Distributed Cache, so that the files are directly cached on other local Windows 7 computers for distributing to other Windows 7 clients as needed. Neat, eh?
Taken all-in-all, there’s a lot of neat networking stuff in Windows 7, from features suitable for a home-user who just wants an easy way to share files, to a business road-warrior who wants life to be easier, to a corporate IT manager who wants to improve network efficiency. And, best of all, no matter what you want from Windows 7 networking, it’s far easier to access than it has been in earlier versions of Windows. Enjoy!