Get IT Done: Many features in Microsoft Windows XP Professional bring business value to remote workers

Bring business value to remote workers with Windows XP Professional

My previous article proposed that Windows XP Professional’s ideal market was remote workers—especially those who spend significant time working from home—rather than corporate networks. I explained why WinXP Pro has distinct advantages over WinXP Home Edition, and I identified three main XP feature sets I think make XP pro stand out:
  • Usability
  • Security
  • Troubleshooting

What follows is a brief description of each of these XP feature sets and the ways each applies specifically to home workers. Some of the features rely on options that are disabled in a domain environment, so a home computer running in a stand-alone or workgroup configuration can make full use of all of them.

Usability features
Extensive support for wireless networks
Windows XP supports IEEE 802.11 standard for wireless LANs, requiring minimal configuration. This is ideal for home wireless networks, where ease of use has a higher priority than throughput or security.

Network bridging
XP networking includes a bridge component for network adapters that transparently connects network segments so that the home network becomes a single IP subnet. This can be particularly handy when using Internet Connection Sharing. The option has little use for corporate networks, where more sophisticating routing and bridging hardware are used.

Fast user switching
The Fast User Switching feature employs the same technology as Terminal Services but on the desktop, so that multiple users can be logged on and keep their applications open without having to log off before somebody else can use the computer. This is disabled in a domain environment and can't be used with offline files. It does require more memory (2 MB per user, plus memory for running applications, with a minimum of 128 MB of RAM recommended).

Remote Desktop
Remote Desktop also utilizes Windows 2000 Terminal Services technology, but it does so to enable users to remotely access their Windows XP Professional machine. By default, administrators can automatically connect to the remote desktop, logging out any currently connected user and locking the computer while connected (for security purposes). Additional remote desktop users can be added, but they won't be able to log off a currently connected user—the connection will be refused. When connecting directly over the Internet (rather than over a VPN), remember that this feature uses RDP (TCP port 3389), which you may need to open on any intervening routers/firewalls.

Fax console
With an interface similar to most e-mail programs (Inbox, Outbox, Sent Items, etc.), the fax console is easy and intuitive to use. It includes a wizard to guide you through creating cover pages. In addition, it lets you prioritize faxes and delay sending, and you can import/export faxes to integrate with other fax programs. The Fax Monitor displays time and events related to sending and receiving faxes, including any transmission problems, and it helps determine connectivity status. This can save a remote worker from having to buy an additional fax machine.

Compressed (zipped) folders
This functionality is built around WinZip functionality, first seen in Windows Me and rarely mentioned in Windows XP documentation because it is assumed that NTFS compression makes this option superfluous. It works by marking a folder as compressed so that any files created or moved into that folder will become compressed and save disk space.

Home workers may find this useful when sending zipped files by e-mail or over the VPN, as well as when NTFS compression is not possible because the data needs to be accessible to older operating systems on the same machine—such as when multibooting with Win9x.

You can password-protect compressed folders (accessing them afterward will prompt for a password before uncompressing), but be forewarned: There is no password recovery option.

By automatically searching and displaying shortcuts to network resources after crawling the Entire Network, this feature makes it easy to locate available network shares and printers. NetCrawler checks for new network resources at log on or when Printers And Faxes or My Network Places is opened or refreshed. It automatically deletes these shortcuts when they are older than 48 hours. This feature is disabled in a domain and when connected via VPN or to a Terminal Server.

File and Settings Transfer wizard (or User Migration Tool)
This feature is ideal if XP is replacing rather than upgrading a computer, allowing you to transfer your familiar and frequently used settings from another computer. It can also be used for transferring settings from another new boot option on a multiboot system. If you require more control/customization, make use of the more complex but more powerful User Migration Tool. Note: This works only with Win9x and Windows Me systems and not NT 4.0 or Windows 2000.

Locally shared folders
Locally shared folders aren't available in a domain environment. XP makes it easy for all users to access common files by providing a Shared Documents folder. Simply drag, paste, or move the files into this folder that you want to be accessible to all users that log on to the computer.

Group taskbar buttons and configurable System Tray (Notification Area)
A couple of small desktop changes—but definitely for the better. The Taskbar option Group Similar Taskbar Buttons keeps all taskbar buttons for the same program together and when the taskbar become crowded, automatically collapses multiple instances of the same program onto one button with chevrons.

Instead of putting up with a cluttered system tray after programs have been installed, you can hide inactive icons (the default) or selectively choose which icon should appear.

Media Player 8
Supports common digital media activities including CD/DVD playback, extended support for more audio cards and features, digital broadcast support and video mixing rendering, and media transfer to portable devices. This could be useful for remote workers that need to access cached audio and/or video clips of conferences, meetings, and/or company presentations.

Native support for CD burning
No need to install additional software for CD writing and rewriting. CDRW is ideal for a home worker’s backups as a relatively cheap and reliable replacement for tape and ZIP drives.

Over 256 colors for Terminal Services Clients
This setting is buried in the group policies (Local Computer | Administrative Templates | Windows Components | Terminal Services | Limit Maximum Color Of Depth). Although the default is 256 colors as it is for Windows 2000, this setting allows you to set 24-bit as the highest option or Client Compatible, to automatically select the highest resolution the client can support. Note that higher resolutions will require more bandwidth.

Security features
Encrypt offline files
The offline files feature is ideal for home workers who work offline and then upload changes to the corporate network via the VPN. This feature in XP Professional now includes support for encrypting the offline files to ensure security. Although more commonly targeted at mobile users, the feature also highly applicable for home workers who often share their computer with others.

Internet Connection Firewall (ICF)
XP now includes the Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), a stateful packet inspection firewall that monitors source and destination traffic to and from the computer, dropping any packets that do not originate from the computer. You can log dropped and allowed packets and open specified ports for incoming services (such as IIS and Remote Desktop). However, ICF does not monitor outgoing packets and assumes these are always legitimate, so it cannot monitor and prevent Trojan programs.

Some kind of firewall is essential these days when connecting over the Internet, so this native security feature is better than nothing—although you might want to supplement it with a more sophisticated desktop firewall.

ICF is not applicable in a domain and is most likely to be used in conjunction with Internet Connection Sharing (ICS), which also cannot be run in a domain because of conflicts with DHCP servers, routers, etc.

Internet Discovery & Control
This feature is another supplement to ICS that allows XP clients to monitor and manage the shared Internet connection.

Automatic updates
Automatic updates reduce the chance of home workers not installing critical security patches, because the process is automated by default. Behind the scenes, XP regularly connects to the Microsoft Web site and looks for needed patches. If it finds any, it automatically downloads them (still behind the scenes). Then, once the patches are downloaded, a screen pops up saying the latest patches are ready and asks the user if he or she is ready to install them.

How often have home workers neglected to install patches requested by administrators, thereby jeopardizing other computers on the corporate network when they dial in? This feature is of less use on corporate networks where administrators prefer full control over computer builds and want to minimize Internet traffic. It's ideally suited to the home worker and is fully configurable (via My Computer | Properties | Automatic Updates tab).

Troubleshooting features
Remote Assistance
Remote Assistance is based on Windows 2000 Terminal Services technology but takes it to a new level so that home workers can “hand over” their computer to the corporate help desk to look at and fix problems. Requests for help can be sent by file, e-mail, or Windows Messenger (the newer version of MSN Messenger that is built into XP). This can include collaboration between the user and the support pro, via text or voice messages and sending/receiving files.

Note that Windows Messenger will not work with ICS or NAT (which is employed on most corporate firewalls), but using Windows Messenger over a VPN connection works well.

Password reset disk and password hints
To safeguard against an inaccessible computer because of forgotten passwords, XP offers two features. The first is the creation of a password disk, which doesn’t save the current password but allows you to reset it to a new value. The second is the ability to display a password hint on logon, similar to the feature provided on Web sites that require logon authentication. However, this password hint is visible to all users. Neither of these features is available in a domain.

Driver Roll Back
How often has a user installed a new driver that caused program errors or a computer crash? With XP, the user can fix this common problem by simply selecting the Roll Back option in Device Manager. This feature is ideal for home workers who have to install a range of new devices themselves, but it's less useful on corporate networks that have standard build images and that typically test new drivers before installing them on production machines.

Note that printer drivers can't be rolled back, and for other drivers, you can't roll back to drivers earlier than the last version. If you want to do either of these things, System Restore is the only option.

System Restore
Another powerful tool for troubleshooting, System Restore takes snapshots of the registry and certain critical system files so you can return your computer to a known working state. Although you can manually create a restore point (for example, before installing a new application/device), the system is clever enough to automatically create restore points at critical times such as when installing unsigned drivers, installing new versions via Automatic Updates, and restoring data from backup. It will also create a restore point every 24 hours (when idle) and optionally at preset intervals if configured in the registry. You can undo a system restore that doesn’t resolve the problem.

Automated System Recovery (ASR)
NTBackup now includes the Automated System Recovery Wizard to create an image of your system partition (saved to tape or CD), together with a bootable floppy. When the computer refuses to boot normally, and/or other troubleshooting techniques such as Roll Back, System Restore, Last Known Good, and Safe Mode have failed, simply boot with the floppy disk to restore the saved image. This feature is ideal for home workers who need to quickly and easily get their computer back up and running when the corporate help desk is out of reach.

Safe editing of Boot.ini
Another small but useful troubleshooting aid for less technical users is the assistance given with editing the Boot.ini file, either with the command-line utility Bootcfg.exe or with the GUI System Configuration Utility. You can search for Windows installations and build a new file and add/remove switches without using a text editor to help ensure that home workers won’t end up with a nonuseable Boot.ini (and therefore an unbootable computer).

Single registry editor
The full searching facilities and easier-to-use interface of Regedit have now been combined with the additional security options previously only found in Regedt32. This is a small but significant feature if you spend much time delving into the registry and it eliminates the confusion of having two registry editors.

Program Compatibility Wizard
This wizard allows you to try different settings to emulate older versions of the Windows operating system if you have software that will not run correctly on Windows XP. Although this is available for Windows 2000 with SP2, it’s natively included with Windows XP.

Faster execution of Chkdsk
Chkdsk.exe in Windows XP supports new switches (/i and /c) that provide faster performance by skipping certain system files.

Disk Cleanup new options
This useful maintenance utility under Windows XP includes options for compressing old files and deleting old restore points to maximize disk space.

Customize interface components
All the fancy new graphic features in XP come at the cost of memory and ultimately performance. When this becomes an issue, XP allows you to fine-tune these features in My Computer | Properties | Advanced | Performance | Visual Effects. You can set a configuration for best appearance or best performance or customize exactly which interface components you want.

Final analysis
WinXP Pro's usability, security, and troubleshooting enhancements can provide added value to home workers. The details we've covered here should provide you with enough information to make a determination about whether your company could best be served by purchasing or recommending WinXP Pro for your home workers.

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