Get IT Done: Three utilities in XP's Computer Management console

Shared Folders, Services and Disk Management on the Windows XP Computer Management console

The Computer Management console was designed to assist the support tech in performing basic troubleshooting and maintenance tasks on a client computer. If you’ve worked with Windows 2000, then you’re probably already familiar with this console. However, if your company recently upgraded from Windows 9x or Me to Windows XP, this console may be new to you. The Computer Management console is grouped into the following three major categories in the console tree: System Tools, Storage, and Services and Applications. However, I will focus on three troubleshooting features within these categories that a support tech would find useful for XP machines: Shared Folders, Services, and Disk Management.

For more information on the Windows 2000 console
Read the article "Introducing Microsoft Management Console" for a more detailed look at the Windows 2000 version of this console.

Getting there
To access the Computer Management console, open Control Panel, click on Performance And Maintenance, and then Administrative Tools. When the Administrative Tools window opens, double-click the Computer Management icon. When the Computer Management console opens, it will look something like the screen shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The Computer Management console contains a wide variety of utilities. I will focus on the three you see highlighted above.

The Shared Folders utility
You can use the Shared Folders utility to diagnose file write problems, and it makes a valuable security tool. Occasionally, a user may attempt to update a local file but will receive a message stating that the file is in use. When this happens, you should first see if the user has any other programs open that may be using the file. If you close the other programs but still can’t update the file, someone else may be using the file through a network connection. The Shared Folders tool allows you to look at exactly what they have shared and who is accessing what via several nodes, which I will detail in the sections below.

Shares node
There are three subnodes available beneath the Shared Folders node. The first is the Shares node, which displays all shares on the user's system. If you look at the Shares node and see a share that doesn't belong, you can cancel the share by right-clicking the share and selecting Stop Sharing from the context menu. However, some shares are automatically established for administrative purposes and can’t be stopped.

You may also right-click a share and view its properties for more information about it. From the properties sheet, you can control the number of people who can access the share, the share’s name, its path, and caching options.

Sessions node
The next node under the Shared Folders utility is the Sessions node, which can tell you the name of the user connected to the computer, the computer he or she is using, the number of files that he or she has open, and how long he or she has been connected. As an administrator or support tech, when you are troubleshooting a client's machine, you should know which users are authorized to connect to it. So if you happen to see someone connected to the user's computer who shouldn’t be, simply right-click the session and select the Close Session command from the context menu.

Open Files node
The final node under the Shared Folders utility is the Open Files node. This node identifies which file on your user's machine is in use by remote users and who is using that file. If the user has trouble updating a local file, this is where you would look to see if someone else was using the file. You can regain control of a file that someone else has open by right-clicking the session and selecting the Close Open File command from the context menu.

However, before forcing a file closure, I recommend checking with the remote user to make sure it is okay. I’ve seen situations in which a remote user was in the process of updating a file and a support tech forced a file closure, which corrupted the file and prevented anyone from using it.

The Services utility allows you to manage Windows XP’s services. As the Windows XP operating system (OS) has a wide variety of tasks that it must perform, the tasks are set up as OS services. Windows XP treats a service similarly to a program, so if an OS function were to have a problem, only the service associated with the function would shut down, leaving the remainder of the OS functional. That way, a small problem won’t cause a massive Windows crash.

Select the Services node in the Services And Applications console tree, and you’ll see a screen similar to the one shown in Figure B.

Figure B
The Service Control Manager allows you to interact with the various Windows XP services.

One difference you may notice between the Windows 2000 Service Control Manager and the Windows XP version is that XP's displays a description of what the selected service does.

When you’re troubleshooting a service, you’ll want to first check the service’s status. Looking at the status column in Figure B, you’ll see that some services have been started and others haven’t. Many of the services that haven't been started are only used under specific conditions. However, some of these services are required for proper Windows functionality. Look at the Startup Type column in Figure B, and you’ll see that some services are set to start automatically while others are set to start manually. Right-clicking it and selecting Stop can disable a service. Anytime a service is set to automatic, the service should be running, so if it's not, you should see if there's a problem.

Suppose for a moment that a Windows service shut down unexpectedly. What do you do? First, in the right pane of the Services tool, right-click the malfunctioning service and then select the Start command from the context menu to try to restart the service. Sometimes though, it simply won’t restart.

When a service fails, the failure can be related to something else in the OS. For example, insufficient memory resources can cause a service to fail. Some services function as a chain, so when one service shuts down, the services that depend on it will fail. If you can’t get a failed service to restart, rebooting might fix the problem. However, Windows XP's Computer Management console allows you to do some detective work so you can prevent the problem from happening again.

To examine a failed service more closely, right-click the service and open the service’s properties sheet. It contains four tabs (General, Log On, Recovery, and Dependencies), each of which provides you with important information about the service.

General tab
The General tab provides you with a description of the service and buttons for stopping, starting, pausing, or resuming the service. You can also use the General tab to change the service’s startup type to automatic, manual, or disabled. Perhaps the most valuable thing on the General tab is the service’s command line. Knowing the command line that Windows uses to launch the service allows you to see if the executable still exists and whether or not the file is corrupt.

Log On tab
As you’re no doubt aware, Windows XP was designed with security in mind. Because of this, services can’t run unless they piggyback on a user account with a high enough permission level to accomplish the task at hand. The built-in Windows XP services are set to use the local system account, but add on services, such as those installed by third-party software, sometimes require you to provide a service account name and password. If the login name or password is incorrect, the service will fail to start. Likewise, if the service account login is successful but the account has insufficient permissions, the service may shut down.

Recovery tab
The Recovery tab is useful for dealing with stubborn services because it allows you to determine how Windows should react if a service fails. For example, suppose that a service fails repeatedly. By clicking on the appropriate drop-down box, you could tell Windows to restart the service after the first failure. After the second failure, you might tell Windows to reboot the PC.

Another option is to run a program when a service fails. For example, suppose that a service fails whenever disk space runs low. You could click the Browse button and specify a certain program in the Run Program area of the Recovery tab that Windows could run to free up disk space if the service fails.

Dependencies tab
The final tab on a service’s properties sheet is the Dependencies tab, which tells you all the services that this particular service depends on. For example, if service A depends on service B, and service B depends on service C, then technically, service A depends on services B and C. You can view this information in a tree structure that tells you exactly which services depend on each other. This tab will also tell you which services depend on the service that you’re currently looking at.

Disk Management
The final area of the Computer Management console that pertains to troubleshooting is the Disk Management tool. When you select the Disk Management node, Windows will display all of the storage devices that are installed in the system, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
The Disk Management tool allows you to see all of the storage devices installed on a user's system.

From this node, you can perform basic hard disk-related chores, such as formatting, repartitioning, and changing drive letters, by right-clicking the hard disk and choosing the appropriate command from the context menu.

To troubleshoot a partition, right-click it and open its properties sheet. The properties sheet’s General tab contains a pie chart that illustrates the amount of free disk space compared to total disk space. Low disk space can cause a whole slew of problems, so when a user's computer suffers from low disk space, click the Disk Cleanup button to launch a wizard that guides you through the process of freeing up disk space.

Also on this node, you'll find the Tools tab, which contains three buttons: Check Now, Defragment Now, and Backup Now. The Defragment Now and Backup Now buttons are both self-explanatory. However, when you click Check Now, Windows displays a dialog box containing two check boxes. The first check box is Automatically Fix File System Errors. If you don’t select this check box, Windows will report hard disk problems but won’t fix them. The other check box is Scan For And Attempt Recovery Of Bad Sectors. When enabled, this option allows Windows to try to salvage data after a physical hard disk crash. When troubleshooting a partition problem, it is a good idea to have both of these boxes selected so that you can take advantage of these features.

When faced with difficult support questions, all IT pros should be aware of the power of the Management Console utilities. These utilities run the gamut from disk management services, to services configuration, to share file access. Each provides its own unique function for solving difficult PC problems. By using each of the utilities described in this article for troubleshooting, the support tech can quickly locate and correct PC problems.

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