Understanding and troubleshooting network browsing in Windows 98

In this Daily Drill Down, Talainia Posey discusses how browsing Network Neighborhood works in Windows 98 and offers several techniques for troubleshooting network browsing.

One of the nice things about Windows is the way it makes network resources so easy to access. You can simply point and click your way through Network Neighborhood until you find what you’re looking for. However, Network Neighborhood may not always display all the computers on your network. It’s also possible that computers may show up in Network Neighborhood that no longer exist on the network or that are powered off. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll discuss how Network Neighborhood gets its information and how network browsing works. I’ll also provide some configuration and troubleshooting tips.
Although we’re discussing Windows 98, the same principles apply, with slight variations, to Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95, Windows NT, and Windows 2000. This is true whether your network is running NetWare, Windows NT, or Windows 2000.
About the browse master
When you open Network Neighborhood, shown in Figure A, Windows sometimes pauses while it gathers information. However, contrary to popular belief, Windows 98 isn’t busy polling every computer on the network for information. Instead, Windows 98 pulls this information from a single computer that’s storing a list of all the computers it’s currently aware of. This list is referred to as the browse list, and it’s stored on a browse server.

In spite of the name, a browse server may actually reside on a workstation, not a server. Although there may be many browse servers on any given network, the one that takes precedence over all others is called the master browse server (sometimes called the browse master). In situations in which there’s more than one browse server on a network, the browse master functions authoritatively. At preset intervals, it copies its browse list to the other browse servers, which function as backup browsers. Their function is to reduce the load on the browse master and, in some cases, to help reduce network traffic.

Figure A
Network Neighborhood displays a list of known computers on the network.

When Windows 98 boots and attaches to the network, it checks for the presence of a browse server. If it doesn’t detect a browse server, it forces an election so that a computer on your network may become a browse server. (I’ll discuss elections more later on.) If it does detect a browse server, Windows 98 checks the number of browse servers available and then counts the number of computers that currently exist in the workgroup. If the ratio of computers to browse servers is above a certain number (usually 15 to 1), then an additional computer will eventually be promoted to a browse server.

Setting up a browse server
As you may have figured out, the process of establishing a browse server is pretty much automatic. However, you can have some level of control over it by choosing which computers on your network may or may not become browse servers. Only a computer that’s running File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks may become a browse server. This isn’t true for computers running Windows NT or Windows 2000, since file and print sharing is always enabled for these operating systems.

If you do have a Windows 98 system that’s running File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks, however, you can control whether that system is allowed to become a browse server. First, open Control Panel and double-click the Network icon to open the Network properties sheet. Now, select the File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks component and click the Properties button. You’ll see the File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks dialog box. As you can see in Figure B, this dialog box contains a Browse Master property, which is set to Automatic by default. By using the Value drop-down list, you may set the Browse Master option to Enable or Disabled.

Figure B
The File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks dialog box lets you prevent the computer from becoming a browse server.

After seeing this feature for the first time, your initial instinct may be to disable the Browse Master option on every machine to improve performance. However, keep in mind that for Network Neighborhood and other browser-related functionality to work, you must have at least one browse master. You should also keep in mind that having a system functioning as a browse master or a backup browser has almost no noticeable impact on the machine’s performance. After all, until now, you may not have even known that the feature was running. I recommend you leave the Browse Master option set to Automatic on computers that are generally left turned on most of the time. It’s no big deal if the machine gets turned off at night while no one is trying to use the network; however, you wouldn’t want a laptop, for example, to become a browse server since it may not even be attached to the network all the time. In the case of a laptop, I recommend disabling the Browse Master option.

How the browse list is maintained
Now that you know what a browse list is, you may be wondering how a computer joins this list. When a computer that’s running Windows 98 comes online, it sends a browse announcement to the browse master. The browse master then adds the computer to the browse list. Any time the browse list on the browse master changes, the browse master sends a notification to the backup browsers that the browse master list has changed. The backup browsers then poll the browse master for the updated list.

To avoid overwhelming the browse master, each backup browser waits a random amount of time before polling the browse master. This prevents the master from being slammed by simultaneous requests from every backup browser on the network. Because of this random time delay, it may take as long as 15 minutes for a backup browser to get the updated information. From an end-user standpoint, this means that when you’re surfing Network Neighborhood, your list of computers takes up to 15 minutes to appear, depending on which browser you’re attached to.

When you shut down a computer running Windows 98, Windows 98 informs the browse master that it’s going down. The browse master then removes the computer from the browse list and notifies the backup browsers that changes have been made to the browse master list. The backup browsers may then pull the updated browse list from the browse master in the same manner that I discussed earlier.

This may sound like a reliable method. However, in the real world, sometimes users power down their machines without properly shutting them down. Likewise, a power failure may occur, or someone could trip over a power cord. There are a million reasons why a machine may not go down gracefully. In such situations, the computer doesn’t have a chance to alert the browse master that it’s going down. Fortunately, there’s a provision for such a situation.

Every 15 minutes, the browse service polls all the computers that appear in the browse master list. If a computer has been powered off abruptly, the machine won’t answer when polled by the browse service. After the computer has failed to answer three times in a row, it’s removed from the browse list. This means that a computer that’s no longer online may continue to appear in Network Neighborhood for up to 45 minutes after it has gone down.

Electing browse masters
I mentioned earlier that when a computer comes online, it will force a browser election if it can’t detect a browse master. A browser election is a method of deciding which computer is best suited for the job of browse master. A browser election occurs if no browse master is detected on the network or if a preferred browse master comes online. A preferred browse master is a computer running a more advanced operating system than the current browse master. For example, a Windows NT computer is preferred over a Windows 98 computer.

When a browser election occurs, the election results depend on several factors, such as the operating system and whether the computer is already a browser. Each criterion in the browser election is given a hexadecimal number. The more important the criterion, the higher the number. After each criterion has been examined, Windows 98 adds the numbers together. The computer with the highest result gets to be browse master. If two results are the same, the computer that’s been online the longest wins. Here’s a partial list of the criteria that Windows 98 looks at in order of importance:
  • Windows NT Server
  • Windows NT Workstation
  • Windows 98
  • Windows 95
  • Windows for Workgroups
  • Primary Domain Controller
  • WINS Client
  • Preferred Browse Master
  • Current Browse Master
  • Maintain Server List set to Yes
  • Current Backup Browser

Troubleshooting the browse master
If your browse list seems incomplete, there could be several reasons. For example, the computer may not be set up to use the browsing service, which is based on NetBIOS. This means that if a computer doesn’t use some implementation of NetBIOS, it will never update the browse list. To verify that your computer can update the browse list, make sure that it’s running either the NetBEUI protocol or TCP/IP. If you use TCP/IP, be sure to enable NetBIOS over TCP/IP, or use the WINS service to pass resource information across the network. Remember that, by default, NetBIOS information isn’t routable. Therefore, if you’re using a router to connect network segments, using WINS is your best bet.

Another component of the browse service is the Client For Microsoft Networks. The Client For Microsoft Networks should be loaded onto each machine that you want to be available on the browse list, even if you don’t plan on logging in to a Windows NT domain.

If you’ve loaded these components but still can’t get your computer to show up on the browse list, try loading File And Print Sharing For Microsoft Networks. I’ve seen situations where adding this service has added a computer to a browse list when it was having trouble making itself known.

I should also point out that if you’re attaching to a NetWare network, you don’t have to worry about any of this. The combination of Microsoft Client For NetWare Networks and NWLINK IPX/SPX also supports the browsing service.

If you’ve tried all the techniques I’ve mentioned here but you’re still having trouble with the browsing service, it could be related to a browse master malfunction. In such a situation, you can use the Net View command as a diagnostic tool. Use the format Net View /Workgroup:workgroup_name (where workgroup_name is the workgroup whose members you’re interested in listing) to display the browse list that’s stored on the browse master. This command directly references the browse master, not any backup browsers. You can see an example of this command in Figure C.

Figure C
The Net View /Workgroup:workgroup_name command can be used to display the browse master list.

If the browse list on the master is inaccurate, shut down the browse master, and another computer will be promoted to browse master. Once this occurs, you can bring the original browse master back online.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve covered basic theory and troubleshooting tips for browsing your network with Windows 98. You can use these tips to make browsing your network more accurate and efficient for your users.

Talainia Posey learned to handle PCs the old-fashioned way: by reading manuals and doing on-the-job troubleshooting. Her experience also includes installing networks for several small companies. When she's not working on computers, Talainia loves to shop for toys and watch cartoons, or spend time with her cat, Beavis.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox