Managing Internet Explorer

Remember when browsers were simple little applications? It may seem hard to believe, but just a few years ago, way back in 1996, you could run Mosaic from a diskette and immediately begin exploring the primordial Web's hundreds of interesting sites.

That was then.

Today, as most of us know all too well, Microsoft's Internet Explorer comes on a packed CD. It can take half an hour or more just to install it. Then, before you can use it, you typically need to tune it by adjusting a dizzying assortment of proxy, security, and preference controls. This is a daunting task for just one user's PC. If you're charged with packaging Internet Explorer for use throughout your company, the cost of this job is multiplied by the number of users you need to support. What's that? You changed the name of your proxy server? No problem. Just drop by each of your thousands of users' desks on you way to lunch and reconfigure IE for each of them.

Or you can get yourself a copy of Internet Explorer Resource Kit and build yourself an IE configuration profile server.

An IE configuration profile server is, simply, a Windows NT file or Web server that contains one or more IE profiles. An IE profile, in turn, is a canned configuration file that contains all the settings your users need to run IE properly within your company. Among other things, the IE Resource Kit comes with a Profile Editor for creating an IE profile that includes proxy settings, welcome and home page definitions, favorites lists, and link buttons. Create and store a profile on a server, then point your users' Web browsers to it. Later, when your users launch IE -- or, if you prefer, every so often while running IE -- their browser will be configured automatically using the parameters specified in the profile.

How do you point your users' browsers to your profile server?

If you haven't yet deployed IE, you can use the packaging utilities in the resource kit to custom-build a version of IE that includes the necessary pointer. When your users install IE from your package, their browsers will be preconfigured to download parameters from the designated profile on your profile server.

If you've already deployed IE, you can instruct your users to set the autoconfiguration value of the browser's "Internet Options" to the proper URL or UNC path on your profile server. Or, you can set these parameters for them. Easier still, you can automatically poke the path into their registries, under the "HKCU\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Internet Settings" key, as a string value named "AutoConfigURL," perhaps by distributing a .REG file -- as created by REGEDIT -- to them via e-mail, or by applying the .REG file with commands in your domain logon script.

This very powerful tool comes at a price, though. The IE Resource Kit is the least of it, running under $100. You have to allow a day or two to install and learn how to use it, and maybe an afternoon to build a new or configure an existing Web or file server to house your profiles. Depending on the network distance from your server, your users might notice a delay, ranging up to several seconds, in the time it takes to launch IE as it loads your profile's parameters. You can mitigate this by distributing copies of your profiles closer to your users, perhaps within the NETLOGON shares of your company's NT domain controllers. Note that IE 5.0 facilitates this by allowing NT environment variables, like %LOGONSERVER%, in the AutoConfigURL string.

The cost of these resource kit tricks is cheap, however, when compared with the work involved in keeping IE up and running in today's constantly changing Internet world. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at