Managing Mobile Users Isn’t Easy

One of the ways Microsoft Corp. has tried to address the total-cost-of-ownership problems that PCs have is by adding free built-in features to Windows NT that support mobile users who move from machine to machine in a corporate network. But watch out for the hidden management costs of using these free features. There are some management problems and technical "glitches" associated with mobilizing Windows NT.

So different users can share the same Windows NT system -- each with a unique context of e-mail characteristics, Internet history and registry settings -- Windows NT stores each user's NT "personality" in a directory path called a user profile. You can find your path by translating the NT system variable %userprofile%. Right-click the My Computer icon, select Properties and click the User Profiles tab: You'll find a list of the user profiles on the machine, each containing a record of that user's application and system preferences.

Individual users who travel from computer to computer within an organization's network can take advantage of a handy NT feature known as a Roaming Profile. Located on servers rather than stored locally on each computer, Roaming Profiles are automatically downloaded to a machine when a user logs on, then uploaded with any changes when a user logs off. Thus, users with roaming profiles take their Windows NT personalities with them. No matter where they are in their network, they're ready for action as soon as they've logged on.

That introduces our first problem: "fat" roaming profiles. These profiles take many minutes or hours to download and upload. Try logging in with a roaming profile through a phone line! Several factors, both obvious and subtle, can cause this problem.

When users store files on the desktop area of their NT screens, the files actually reside in their profiles. Download a 20 MB file from the Internet, save it to your desktop and then log out. If you use a roaming profile, the 20 MB file will be uploaded to your server then downloaded to your C drive every time you log in.

But how do you stop users from storing files on their desktops short of clubbing them and leaving their battered bodies hanging over their cubicles for all to see. There is no easy solution for controlling what people put on their desktop, and even if you find a nonviolent method roaming profiles can get fat from other things, some that users can't easily control.

Internet Explorer, for example, keeps a user's browsing history -- cached pages, pictures and cookies -- in the profile path. Unchecked, it doesn't take long for IE to accumulate megabytes of this stuff, leaving roaming users to wonder why it seems to take a little longer each day to log on and off their machines.

Cut the corporate link to the Internet and get rid of IE. That should solve all of your roaming profile problems, right? Wrong.

Roaming profiles expose NT system and network managers to numerous support headaches. Without getting into details, roaming from machine to machine, if the software configuration of each machine isn't carefully managed, can result in unpredictable and arcane support problems.

Therefore if you plan to use roaming profiles, you should follow these three tips and exercise a great deal of caution: Using the Policy Editor improperly can screw up every machine in your network.

[] Avoid using roaming profiles, unless your organization is equipped to configure each machine in the network with identical applications and system features. If this configuration includes Internet Explorer, make sure each user is managing the size and location of IE's cache area on each machine. You can find tools for this in the Internet Explorer Resource Kit, on Microsoft's Web site and in the release notes of recent Windows NT Service Packs.

  • Map your users' desktop files to a server, rather than storing them locally. Use the NT System Policy editor, which can be found by navigating to the following key: Windows NT Shell\Custom Folders\Custom Desktop Icons. By checking this option, and pointing it to a path on one of the user's mapped drives -- for example M:\$desktop, where M is mapped to the user's share on an NT server -- you turn the user's desktop into a window on a file server rather than their local machine. With this feature enabled, users see the same desktop no matter which machine they're logged into, without uploading and downloading anything as they log out and in.
  • You may not need roaming profiles at all. Consider using the automatic profile generation tools available for Exchange and Outlook in your logon scripts to create e-mail profiles automatically for your users, including pointers to server-resident personal folders, wherever they go.

The bottom line is that mobilizing your Windows NT-equipped workforce, using features like roaming profiles, is not plug-and-play. Don't underestimate the effort involved in getting these features to work properly with a minimum of costly support calls. When you plan for mobility, don’t start by giving people roaming profiles and then scrambling to figure out why they don't work. Instead, start by defining the mobility needs of your users, then implement the minimum set of technical trickery required to give them what they need to do their jobs. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at