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Exploring 2000 -
On the move (June 1999)
Bob Walder looks at the facilities for mobile computing.
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This article is based on NT 5.0, Beta 2.

It is not too long ago that most of us were chained to our desks, at least in a computer sense, due to the requirement to run legacy applications and have constant access to centralised corporate data in order to do anything remotely useful. But business life has become far more mobile in the past few years and the problem has been how to acquire the most up-to-date information from computer systems which may be based hundreds of miles away.

With the introduction of the portable computer (more accurately termed ‘luggable’ in the early days) things started to get a little easier for the corporate road warriors. Although the early machines were little more than transportable desktop PCs, manufacturers such as Toshiba, IBM, Compaq and Hewlett Packard have improved designs to the point where a PC the size of an A4 pad can contain a high-powered Pentium processor, hundreds of megabytes of RAM, gigabytes of hard disk space, and a high-resolution colour screen, DVD drive and stereo sound system to boot.

Today’s notebook PC


Today’s notebook PC has become a true desktop replacement machine rather than a ‘poor second’ to the PC we use in the office. Indeed, for many users the notebook has become THE machine that is used both on the road and in the office. The only problem now is that with all those gigabytes of storage on the notebook hard drive, where does the user store documents?

As a mobile user, nothing is worse than finding that you have left critical documents behind on the network - so many users don’t, preferring to keep all their data locally. The only problem is, that when all a user’s data is stored on a local hard drive, how is it backed up? Some data, of course, cannot be arbitrarily removed from the network – major corporate documents such as the HR manual, for instance, need to be stored centrally. So what happens there? Well, a user who needs to work on such a document might take a copy of it onto a local drive and make changes while away from the office. The problem here is that there is no guarantee that more than one person at a time will not make changes to the same document, and sometimes those changes are forgotten about and never copied back to the central location. Result – several copies of the same document lying around the company, each one different.

The network administrator needs to regain control of where the user stores his data without imposing any excessive restrictions on the use of that data. Only then can we be sure that all corporate information is kept up to date and is backed up regularly. From the user’s point of view, he needs something simpler than the plethora of mapped drives and local directories to deal with – small wonder that important data goes missing.

Intellimirror


Windows 2000 includes new technology known as Intellimirror to handle off-line storage of data (or local caching) and bi-directional synchronisation to ensure it remains in sync with information stored centrally.As well as documents, Intellimirror can be used to manage user settings too, ensuring that key user-specific data follows the user around the network. A prime example is the custom dictionary used in Word. The user will spend a considerable amount of time over the months and years building up a meaningful custom dictionary, only to find that all his carefully selected words have disappeared the next time his notebook is upgraded, or as he moves from machine to machine in the organisation. The concept of hot desking has been taken very seriously with Windows 2000, with the aim that a user should be able to sit at any PC and have exactly the same ‘experience’ right down to the desktop settings, Internet shortcuts and, yes, the custom dictionary.

So, we need to be able to keep our documents on the server to be backed up, but also have them locally to be worked on when we are not connected to the network. And whenever changes are made to either copy of that data, we want those changes to be mirrored automatically back to the alternate location.

Intuitive document storage


The first advance has been to make document storage much more intuitive for the user via enhanced shell functionality. More specifically, the default storage space for user data is My Documents, and this location is prevalent throughout the shell in Windows 2000, appearing in every dialogue box to do with file open, save, search, and so on. Microsoft is encouraging application developers to use it by making the API accessible to them so their applications can be aware of where they need to put the documents by default. How often have you installed a new application, saved a file from it and then spent ages trying to find out exactly where it put the file? Every application has its own default document directory, and some of them cannot even be changed! With Windows 2000, all documents should finish up in the same place. Administrators will also be encouraged to use it since it will now be configurable via policy. This allows them to publish shortcuts and, more importantly, to redirect My Documents to a server share.

Another change for the user is that Network Neighbourhood has disappeared. On large networks, Network Neighbourhood could become unwieldy and basically useless, so in Windows 2000 it has been replaced by My Network Places. This now contains everything network-related that is relevant to the end-user, and it is customised to that end user. So only when you go out in the network and you touch things do they start showing up in My Network Places. In addition, the administrator can now create shares for specific users or groups and assign these via My Network Places, so as soon as a new user logs on, all the relevant data is at his fingertips. FTP and HTTP targets can also be mapped in the same way. Why? Office 2000 leverages the Internet, allowing you to save documents directly to a URL and have it appear instantly as a Web page. But what happens when the user undocks his notebook and goes on the road?

Off-line shares


Off-line shares are the first breakthrough, allowing the user to have an identical network name space experience when disconnected, providing access to the same mapped drives and UNC connections to shares out on the network. If the user always gets the HR data from drive P:, that should not change just because the network is no longer available. Off-line shares allow the drive mappings to be maintained and the data within those shares to be made available when disconnected. A new button is available when creating a share, labelled ‘Caching’, where you can enable or disable caching for the share, as well as determining whether the caching should be automatic or manual.

Changes can be made to documents and files in those shares, and these are automatically synchronised bi-directionally once the notebook is connected back to the network via the Synchronisation Manager.

Synchronisation Manager.


The primary objective of the Synchronisation Manager is to provide a unified end-user experience for synchronising offline data with the server. This includes not only the files in the off-line shares, but also those applications that are designed to work off-line, such as Outlook with its offline folders, or Internet Explorer with its subscriptions. In future, these applications will perform their synchronisation through the Sync Manager, providing a consistent interface and user experience.

Synchronisation Manager can also inform applications when it’s time to synchronise, and you can define triggers that would invoke synchronisation automatically – during logon, logoff, idle moments, or manually, for example. In the initial release, synchronisation is at file level only. If a single slide is changed in a PowerPoint presentation, the entire file must be synchronised – delta changes are for a later release. File conflicts – where the same file has been altered locally and centrally – are handled by providing options to save one or the other, or to save the local copy as a new version on the server (preserving the original).

It is possible for the administrator to exclude certain files from automatic synchronisation (large SQL Server databases for example), as well as to ‘pin’ files or shares to a desktop, thus ensuring that they are always synchronised no matter what. Of course, in encouraging users to put all this data on the server rather than keep it locally, you might suddenly find yourself running out of disk space. Another new feature of Windows 2000 is Disk Quotas. It is now possible to restrict the amount of data that can be stored on a per user, per volume basis. (About time too!)

All of these changes provide a giant leap forward in Bill Gates’ much vaunted strategy of "information at your fingertips". For the first time, users will truly be able to forget about where their data is stored, and enjoy continual access to their critical data whether or not they are connected to the network.

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