Optimizing Windows networks

My church’s IT czar asked me a good question the other day. His network performance was erratic and Network Neighborhood was messed up. Some computers saw different views of the network, although if you manually connected to other computers, that usually worked.
There are probably 35 or so computers on the network now, so it’s no longer a small network. He asked a few good questions, and the tips that came out of the discussion bear repeating here.

1. Establish a master browser. There’s supposed to be one and only one keeper of the Network Neighborhood’s directory, if you will. Whenever a Windows computer comes online, it calls for an election. Usually the winner of the election makes sense. But sometimes a computer that has no business winning the election wins. Or sometimes the computers seem to get confused about who won the election.

Networks shouldn’t be like the U.S. political system.

Windows NT, 2000, and XP boxes run a service called Computer Browser. Ideally, you want one master browser and a couple of backups online all the time. So pick four computers who are likely to always be on, and who are running Windows 2000 or XP, preferably (since they’re likely to be newer computers). Then turn the Computer Browser service off on all but those four computers. Browser elections and related bureaucracy can chew up 30% of your network bandwidth in worst-case situations, so this can be worth doing even if you’re not yet experiencing the problem.

2. Use WINS. Unless you have an Active Directory domain and you’re running DNS on Windows 2000 or 2003 Server, Windows boxes have to broadcast because they don’t know the addresses of any other computers on the network. All that broadcast traffic chews up bandwidth and can cause other unusual behavior. WINS is basically like Windows-proprietary DNS. Set up WINS on one of your Windows servers, if you have one, or on a Linux box running Samba, and you’ll end up with a faster, more reliable network.

If you’re running a home network with fewer than 10 PCs, this probably isn’t worth the effort–especially the WINS server. The Computer Browser service might be worth disabling but more because it’ll save you a little bit of memory. If you’re a large enterprise with hundreds or thousands of computers running that service, the freeware PSTools suite from Sysinternals has some command-line utilities that can help you turn off services remotely, to avoid the daunting task of visiting every desk.

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