How do I create and configure a network with Windows 7 HomeGroup?

Greg Shultz investigates the HomeGroup feature of Windows 7 and shows you how to create, configure, and take advantage of it in your network.

The HomeGroup feature in Windows 7 is essentially a peer-to-peer workgroup/network that has been redesigned to make it simpler for home users to set up a home network. While this is essentially true, there is more to a Windows 7's HomeGroup feature than meets the eye.

Even though a HomeGroup works like a standard peer-to-peer workgroup, behind the scenes it does in fact share some of the networking functionality of a domain. For example, the computers in a HomeGroup have an inherent machine trust and there are consistent user identities throughout the network. As such, the Windows 7 HomeGroup feature is ideal for a small- to medium-sized business network -- despite the name.

In this edition of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll investigate Windows 7's HomeGroup feature. As I do, I'll show you how to create, configure, and take advantage of a HomeGroup.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a free TechRepublic download.

What is a HomeGroup?

As an enhanced version of a peer-to-peer workgroup designed for the new operating system, only computers running Windows 7 can actually participate in a HomeGroup. However, Windows 7, XP, and Vista systems can all participate in a standard workgroup network configuration, sharing folders and accessing shared folders just like normal.

You can also use workgroups and HomeGroups side by side. More specifically, you can have several Windows 7 systems participating in HomeGroup on the same physical network as several Windows XP and Vista systems participating in a workgroup.

You can join a HomeGroup in any edition of Windows 7, but you can create one only in Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate, or in the Enterprise edition. The fact that HomeGroup feature is even available in the Enterprise edition of Windows 7 further strengthens the notion that HomeGroup is more than just a home networking toy.

In fact, a Windows 7 HomeGroup can exist and be used side by side with a Windows domain -- with a few caveats. First, if your Windows 7 system is connected to a domain, you can join a HomeGroup, but you can't create one. Second, while you can access files and resources on other HomeGroup computers, you can't share your own files and resources with the HomeGroup.

One more point to take note of before we move on is that in order to create and join a HomeGroup, your network adapter must have IPv6 enabled. If you have disabled IPv6 because you didn't think it was needed, then you'll have to re-enable it.

Creating a HomeGroup

As you may know, during the Windows 7 installation procedure, you are given the option to create a HomeGroup. However, if you chose not to create a HomeGroup at that time, you can create one at any time. Keep in mind that in order for the HomeGroup to function, there must be more than one Windows 7 system on the network and your Network Location must be configured as a Home network. If it's currently configured as a Work or Public network, you will not be able to create a HomeGroup.

Creating a HomeGroup is a very straightforward operation. Access the Control Panel, type Home in the search box, and when HomeGroup appears, as shown in Figure A, select it.

Figure A

If you type Home in the Control Panel search box, you can locate and select the HomeGroup tool quickly and easily.
When the initial HomeGroup window appears, you'll be informed that there is currently no HomeGroup on the network, as shown in Figure B. You'll also find a brief introduction to HomeGroup feature and several links.

Figure B

To get started, just click the Create a Homegroup button.

The first link is to a more detailed explanation of HomeGroups in the Help and Support. The second is to Advanced sharing settings page where you can adjust network-sharing features and even disable the HomeGroup-sharing feature and enable the type of sharing permissions used in Windows XP and Vista, based on user accounts and passwords. You can also start the HomeGroup Troubleshooter, a part of Windows 7's new Troubleshooting Platform, which is powered by a special type of PowerShell 2.0 script that has the ability to diagnose and fix problems.

To launch the Create a HomeGroup wizard, click the Create a HomeGroup button. When the first screen in the Create a HomeGroup wizard appears, you'll be prompted to choose what libraries, or types of files, you want to share to the HomeGroup, as shown in Figure C. You can also choose to share printers.

Figure C

As you begin the process of creating the HomeGroup, you'll be prompted to choose what you want to share with other computers.
Once you choose what it is you want to share, Windows 7 will create the HomeGroup and you'll then see the HomeGroup password, as shown in Figure D. This is the password that other Windows 7 systems will need in order to join and access the HomeGroup. You can either write down this password or click the link to print the password along with a set of instructions that you can give to other Windows 7 users to allow them to join the HomeGroup on their own.

Figure D

The second screen will provide the password that other Windows 7 systems will need to join the HomeGroup.
When you click Finish, you'll see the HomeGroup settings window, as shown in Figure E, where you can perform a host of additional operations related to the HomeGroup.

Figure E

You can use the settings in this window to perform a host of operations related to the HomeGroup.

For example, you can limit or expand the shared libraries as well as enable and customize the media streaming feature of Windows Media Player. While the media streaming capabilities are more in tune with a home network than they are with a business network, this feature could very well be used to deliver video training material.

Of more universal interest here is the ability to view or change the HomeGroup password, leave (or quit using) the HomeGroup, change Advanced sharing settings, and start the HomeGroup troubleshooter.

Joining a HomeGroup

Once a HomeGroup is established on your network, other Windows 7 systems can join the HomeGroup using the password generated during the creation procedure. When you access the HomeGroup feature in the Control Panel on another Windows 7 system, you'll be immediately alerted to the fact that HomeGroup has been created on the network, as shown in Figure F. To continue, just click the Join Now button.

Figure F

When you launch the HomeGroup tool on other Windows 7 systems, you'll be prompted to join the HomeGroup.
When the first screen in the Join a HomeGroup wizard appears, you'll be prompted to choose what types of files and devices you want to share to the HomeGroup, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

When you join a HomeGroup, you will be prompted to choose items to share on the network.
The second screen in the Join a HomeGroup wizard, prompts you to enter the HomeGroup password, as shown in Figure H. You'll enter the password that was generated by the system that created the HomeGroup. Keep in mind that the password is case sensitive.

Figure H

The second screen will prompt you to enter the HomeGroup password generated by the system that created the HomeGroup.
After you enter the password, you'll see the third screen in the Join a HomeGroup wizard, which indicates that you have successfully joined the HomeGroup, as shown in Figure I.

Figure I

You have joined the HomeGroup.

Accessing the HomeGroup

Once you have created and joined a HomeGroup, you can easily access the folders on other computers in the HomeGroup. Launch Computer and expand the HomeGroup section in the Navigation pane. When you do, you'll be able to see other systems in the HomeGroup and access the shared libraries, as shown in Figure J.

Figure J

Once the HomeGroups is created, you can see and access all the shared libraries on all the systems joined to the HomeGroup.

Take note of the expanded Network tree in the Navigation pane. This is a functioning peer-to-peer workgroup that consists of Windows XP and Vista systems as well as the Windows 7 systems that are participating in both the peer-to-peer workgroup and the HomeGroup.

More to come

In upcoming editions of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll examine other features and details of Windows 7's HomeGroup feature. For example, I'll take a more detailed look at how libraries come into play with HomeGroup as well as how you can customize sharing in order to share folders that aren't in a library. I'll also explore how you can link your Windows user account to an online ID in order to expand your HomeGroup to be able to do such things as accessing files on a home computer from your work computer.

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