Microsoft

WinXP Pro could be the best choice for remote workers

Many companies have decided to consolidate around Windows 2000 Pro on client machines rather than moving to Windows XP Pro. But one employee population--remote workers--can definitely benefit from XP.


Many companies are now faced with the choice of whether to use Windows XP Professional on workstations and laptops or to standardize on Windows 2000 Professional. In the majority of cases, Windows 2000 is currently the preferred choice, for the following reasons:
  • It requires less memory (which is particularly important if upgrading older machines).
  • It reduces the total cost of ownership (TCO) by having the same platform for workstations and servers (if running Windows 2000 Server).
  • Return on investment happens faster if users and IT staff have to learn only one platform.
  • Many of the new features in XP are deemed “nice to have” rather than “must have” for businesses.

The XP exception
Of course, there are always exceptions. Possible reasons to deploy Windows XP Professional include cheaper licenses and a longer support cycle from Microsoft. In addition, if just one of those bells and whistles in the new XP feature set offers a significant business benefit, that could be reason enough to opt for XP. For example, users whose work regularly includes desktop publishing activities on TFT screens might find that XP’s support for ClearType could tip the balance in choosing XP over Windows 2000.

And there's one small, often overlooked market where I think Windows XP Professional comes into its own and is a better choice than Windows 2000 (and previous Windows operating systems): remote workers, especially those who frequently work from home.

Many XP features suit the home worker particularly well. You’re unlikely to hear or read about them because it’s assumed that XP Professional will be deployed on corporate networks and XP Home Edition will be used at home. But home workers fall between these two markets. They require business features such as security and networking, yet most of the time, their computers function as stand-alone or workgroup machines, remote from corporate resources such as central servers and the help desk. Windows XP Professional offers a number of features that are not available in previous Windows versions, or in XP Home Edition. Strangely enough, it also offers many useful features that are not available when XP Professional is in a domain.

The home environment
It makes sense to consider this market when you’re looking at platform choices. Home workers are increasing in numbers, and their technical environment can have a significant impact on their productivity and on your help desk. Resolving problems for home workers is usually more difficult for the help desk. It invariably takes longer and may require additional skills when the computer in question is remote and possibly a nonstandard build. The effect on the end user can be especially significant if alternative systems are not available when trying to recover from a problem.

Home workers are those who work away from the office but need occasional access to the corporate network, typically via a virtual private network (VPN). They can include mobile users as well as employees who often use their home computer(s) for work purposes in addition to having a computer at the office.

Home working is a good solution for many people because it decreases travel time and increases efficiency by minimizing typical office disruptions. Nowadays, a home computer with Internet connectivity is fast becoming the norm. Home workers can collaborate with coworkers in a number of ways, including e-mail, instant messaging, and teleconferencing, and they can access corporate resources with remote access (VPN or dial-up point-to-point).

On the downside, these home computers are particularly vulnerable to stability and security issues because they are outside the immediate realm of the corporate help desk, where standard builds are used, central servers safeguard data, and users have minimal rights. Home computers break free from this safety net because they lead a double life as home computers and work computers. This means that the user require full administrator rights so they can install software and devices and generally manage the system.

These home machines typically fulfill a home entertainment role and include access for multiple users (family members), gaming, and digital image and sound support. It’s also not unusual for a household to have more than one computer, in which case, simple networking may also be set up. All of these things can present unique challenges—and some of the new features in XP can help to meet them.

Why XP over Windows 2000
I've assumed here that running a version of Windows older than Windows 2000 (such as Windows 9x, Windows Me, or Windows NT 4.0) is not desirable. So I'll be introducing Windows XP features that are different from Windows 2000 and that are particularly well suited to the home worker.

Some of these features, such as Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop, are well documented and form part of Microsoft’s 70-270 exam objectives. But others may be less well known, particularly if they're not available in a domain environment. I’ve categorized them below into usability, security, and troubleshooting sections, although there is obviously some overlap. In my next article, I'll take a more detailed look at the advantages offered by these features.

Usability features
  • Extensive support for wireless networks
  • Network bridging
  • Fast user switching
  • Remote desktop
  • Fax console
  • Compressed (zipped) folders
  • NetCrawler (for locating printers)
  • File And Settings Transfer Wizard (or User Migration Tool)
  • Locally shared folders
  • Group taskbar buttons and configurable system tray (“notification area”)
  • Media Player 8
  • Native support for DVDs and CD writing/rewriting
  • Over 256 colors for Terminal Services clients

Security features
  • Offline file encryption
  • Internet connection firewall (ICF)
  • Internet discovery and control
  • Automatic updates

Troubleshooting features
  • Remote assistance
  • Password reset disk and password hints
  • Driver roll-back
  • System restore points
  • Automated system recovery (ASR)
  • Safe editing of Boot.ini
  • Single registry editor
  • Program Compatibility Wizard
  • Faster execution of Chkdsk
  • New options for Disk Cleanup
  • Customized interface components

Why XP Professional over XP Home Edition?
When users are connected to the corporate network over a VPN, XP Professional offers a number of features that may be applicable for the home worker, especially if they need to connect to a domain:
  • Active Directory Group Policy, including folder redirection and software installation/maintenance
  • System policy support for NT4 domains
  • Roaming user profiles
  • Login scripts
  • Logon that includes the Log On Using Dial-Up Connections option
  • Offline files and folders
  • Client service for NetWare

Security features include:
  • Local policies (user rights, auditing, security options, desktop lockdown, etc.)
  • EFS
  • ACL Editor
  • Full security sharing. (Deselect Use Simple File Sharing (Recommended) under Folder Options | View, and you will have granular access to sharing options such as the user limit, permissions, caching, and ability to create a new share.)
  • IPSec for secure transmission of data (e.g., with wireless connections, Internet connections, and VPN connections utilizing L2TP/IPSec)

Other miscellaneous enhancements include:
  • Multiprocessor support (for number-crunching applications)
  • IIS (to host Web and FTP sites, etc.)
  • Running Remote Desktop to an office computer with Windows XP Professional. (If you’re working at home and want to remotely access your work computer using Remote Desktop, you will need Windows XP Professional at home.)
  • Multilanguage user interface. This requires the MUI-Pack, which is available only with volume licensing.

Product activation
But what about the pesky Windows product activation? If Windows XP is preinstalled from an OEM, or a copy is installed from the company’s volume or select licensing agreement, it won’t be an issue. Outside of that, most users will have to take the hit, with the knowledge that it should be a one-time event. When a network adapter is installed, up to five items can be changed in the computer without having to reactivate (three items, if there is no network adapter or if it is changed). Reinstalling from scratch won’t require reactivation if you are under the number of items, and you can reactivate up to four times in one year.

For most home workers, activation should present minimal inconvenience, and I think is a small price to pay for the other benefits you can gain.

Final analysis
Although the new feature set in Windows XP Professional seems to offer few business benefits for the corporate network, it definitely shines as the operating system of choice for home workers. Falling between the markets of the corporate environment and home user, remote workers need the best of both worlds to work effectively and securely from home.

Networking and security features not found in Windows XP Home Edition provide the computing environment required. And ease of use and troubleshooting safeguards not found in Windows 2000 equate to fewer technical problems—which ultimately translates into better productivity and a more profitable bottom line.

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