Windows 7 networking guide

I've been looking a lot lately into high-end Windows 7 networking features like URL Quality of Service (QoS)-based traffic management and Secure Remote Connect. There is a lot to like here — and yes, I am a Linux guy saying that — but I've also noticed that many of Windows 7's best networking features are only available if you use Windows 7 Enterprise Edition. Furthermore, to get most of these high-end business features to show their stuff you'll also need Windows Server 2008 R2 on the server end.

I find these restrictions more than a bit annoying. Microsoft's business has always been about locking users into buying the latest versions of their products and making sure that you'll have trouble staying with older products or switching to another company's operating systems. The combination of Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 underlines this point. For example, even if you "upgraded" to Vista and Server 2008 just last year, you won't be able to use even low-end networking features such as Windows 7 HomeGroups, which is Windows 7's answer to XP and Vista's MSHome/WorkGroup simple file and printer-sharing.

With Linux or Macs, all versions come with all the network features. That hasn't been true of Windows since XP came along, and you had to pay an extra $100 to upgrade to XP Pro before you could use your Windows computer in a business network. That, at least, was straightforward. With Windows 7, it's hard to know what feature is supported in what version — so I thought I'd give you a helping hand in what's what with Windows 7.

BranchCache

With BranchCache, you can keep a local copy of frequently accessed corporate files for everyone in your branch office. If you and your co-workers all start looking at the same corporate document a lot, BranchCache keeps a local copy in your branch's Server 2008 R2 Server. Or, if you don't have Server 2008 R2, you can also use another feature, Distributed Cache, so that the files are kept on other local Windows 7 computers for distributing to other Windows 7 clients in a peer-to-peer network.

The one downside: The only version of Windows 7 that Distributed Cache works with is Windows 7 Enterprise, which is only available to Microsoft Software Assurance customers. It doesn't work with Windows 7 Professional, the usual business version of Windows 7.

DirectAccess

Microsoft says that you can use DirectAccess as a VPN (virtual private network) client, but that's not really accurate. DirectAccess, which only works with Windows 7 Enterprise and Server 2008 R2, combines the old IPSec VPN with IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) to provide secure end-to-end connection between a Windows 7 client and a Windows Server 2008 R2 host.

If you're like most American or European offices, you haven't standardized on IPv6 networking yet. Microsoft avoids requiring you to upgrade to IPv6 by using IP-HTTPS, a protocol that tunnels IPv6 packets inside an IPv4-based HTTPS session.

The purpose of all this is to provide safer VPN-style services and to speed up network traffic at the data center. With your run-of-the-mill VPN when someone connects with the office all their Internet traffic goes through the corporate gateway even if it's just someone watching a YouTube video. With DirectAccess, only the business traffic gets send to and from the office gateway while the run-of-the-mill Internet traffic goes straight to the Internet.

Domain Join

Just as with XP, if you want to use your desktop on a domain or AD (Active Directory) style network (whether it's built on top of Windows Server or Linux with Samba), you have to have the right version of Windows 7 — either Enterprise, Professional, or Ultimate.

HomeGroup

As I mentioned earlier, Windows 7's peer-to-peer networking works only with Windows 7 clients. You can't share a HomeGroup with XP or Vista PCs. You also, as it happens, can't create a HomeGroup with Window 7 Starter Edition or Home Basic. You can join say your netbook with Starter Edition to an existing HomeGroup. To create a HomeGroup, you'll need Enterprise, Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate.

Internet Explorer 8

All versions of Windows 7 come with the IE8 Web browser, which is a darn good thing, since IE8 is easily the best and most secure Web browser Microsoft has ever released. Even if you're not running Windows 7, since it seems that IE6 and 7 are still getting successfully attacked every other week, you should do yourself a favor and upgrade to IE8, Firefox 3.5.x or Google Chrome 3.x. They're all much better.

Libraries

Windows 7 Libraries are meta-folders that let you gather files from multiple sources into a single folder view. From where you sit, a Library will look like another directory. But under the surface it's an indexed view of files you choose from anywhere on your PC or network. So, for example, you can have a library you can share on a HomeGroup and which includes photos from your computer's hard drive, your wife's PC's USB drive, and a NAS (network attached storage) device. It comes with the same operating system restrictions as HomeGroup.

Location Aware Printing

Do you print sometimes from home, sometimes from the office, and are tired of having to manually set up your printer depending on where you are at a given moment? If so, then you'll like Location Aware Printing. With this, your Windows 7 Enterprise, Professional, or Ultimate PC will remember which printer you last used at each location so it will take care of shifting printer gears depending on where you happen to be at any given moment. It's a small but useful feature.

URL-based Quality of Service

Windows, like almost all desktop operating systems, has long had QoS (Quality of Service) controls that let network administrators decide which network services should get the lion's share of the network benefit. Now, with any version of Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2, Windows has gotten a new networking tool: URL-based Quality of Service. This works just like the name suggests. On the server side, the system manager can easily set up which sites should be given priority and which ones should come last. What I like about it is that it makes handling the most common network traffic problems — people trying to use bandwidth hungry sites like ESPN and Hulu at work — so easy.

View Available Networks

This is a handy feature that comes with all versions of Windows 7. It gives you a display of all your available network connections-wired, Wi-Fi networks, mobile broadband, VPN — heck, even dial-up — so you can easily pick and choose the one you need.

Windows Connect Now

Windows Connect Now is one of those features which sounds handier than it really is. With this you should be able to easily and securely configure any Windows 7 PC with a Windows 7 compatible Wi-Fi router. Sounds great, but when I tried it with a Linksys 802.11n 4Port Wireless Router WRT160N and a Netgear Rangemax Dual Band 802.11n WNDR3300 Wireless Router, it didn't work. And, yes, both of them were on Microsoft's Windows 7 compatible network hardware list. Maybe next year.

To sum up, there are some really great Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 networking features. In particular, Windows 7 Enterprise and Server 2008 R2 have a lot to offer to businesses. On the other hand, to get the most from Windows, you have to buy these high-end clients and servers. This is one of the reasons why I prefer Linux for desktops and servers. For one price, or even free, I get all their features and, if it one version doesn't work out for me, it's easy to switch to another. With Windows, I end up paying a lot more, and it's far harder, or even impossible, to mix and match.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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