WHY SHARE OVER A NETWORK?
As we discussed earlier, the two primary purposes of computers are data storage (you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel”) and communication (between devices). File sharing combines both of these features. We’ve come a long way from the old “sneakernet”. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you want to view or edit a file, and you can do it from almost anywhere, over the Internet. Moreover, a remote user can also use a shared network device like a printer to print out the contents of the file on any shared computer on the network.
HOW TO SET UP A NETWORK
The key to this process is setting up the network itself. And the key to setting up the network is determined by the operating system or systems hosting the network.
Windows computer networks have been around for a long time. They became common back with Windows 3.0 and Windows NT over twenty years ago and have evolved steadily since then. These days, we still have some XP computers and Windows 7 and Windows 8 operating systems as well, so we’ll discuss them:
DOMAINS: Most home, home office and office computers tend to use the Windows networks to set up their network. Larger organizations tend to use corporate “domains” which are usually set up by their IT guys, and which generally use IP addresses to designate each computer and device on the network. We won’t discuss that here, because if you have to connect to a corporate domain, they’ll want to do this for you themselves for security reasons, likely through a virtual private network (“VPN”) connection. The only thing you have to know is that the “domain” (e.g. “thecomputercoach.net”) is basically the same as your “workgroup” name on a Windows network, just a little more secure and therefore more complicated.
WORKGROUPS: The default name for a network in the Windows operating system has always been “WORKGROUP”. You can use any name you want, though. It can be the name of your business, yourself, your pet or anything else you choose. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that EVERY computer on the network must have the same network name to connect to.
To manually change a system’s workgroup name, you must call up the System Properties dialog box by (left) clicking Control Panel/System in WinXP. In both Win7 and Win8, click the Advanced System Settings link after right-clicking on Computer. Once in the dialog box (see the diagram below), select the Computer Name tab and click the Change button to enter a new workgroup (or domain) name. Next, select a name for your computer. It can be a number, designation (“back office”) or someone’s name. Anything. Make any other changes you desire. When you’re all done, of course, save the changed settings.
ADVANCED SHARING SETTINGS: Before going further, it’s a good idea to re-set the default sharing settings on your computer to allow the desired level of access to all of the computers on the network, regardless of the method you use to share files. This is done by going to the Advanced Sharing Settings, to be found through the Control Panel>Network and Sharing Center. It looks like this:
I suggest that you initially maximize all sharing settings, then gradually reduce them later if necessary. Why? Because this will help avoid needless messages about the network not functioning, which can take hours to unravel. So enable network discovery, as well as file and printer sharing, let all users access public folders and let all devices stream media across the network. Don’t use password-protected sharing right away and, if you have older devices on your network, you can opt to lower the encryption standard used by the network. Save your changes.
HOMEGROUPS: Starting with Win7 and later, Microsoft prompts you to use what it calls “Homegroups” to share files. What was intended by Microsoft to make it easy for home users with small networks to share their files across a home network has, because of its limitations, actually become somewhat more confusing. Personally, I recommend simply using the classic network setup, but that’s just me.
Anyway, Homegroups are relatively easy to set up. In fact, you may get one even if you don’t want one (which still doesn’t mean you have to use it). In Win7, when you set up a new computer, you are automatically prompted to create a Homegroup. In Win8, your Homegroup will be automatically created without prompting if there isn’t already one on the network. If there is one, you’ll be prompted to “Join Now” by clicking and entering the password for that Homegroup. Pretty easy.
There are some limitations, however. Remember at the beginning when I explained that the particular operating system (and its particular version) is the key to setting up a network? Well, here’s an example: While Homegroups are available in Win7 and Win8, your use of Homegroups still depends on your version of those operating systems. If you are operating Win7 Starter, Win7 Home Basic or Win RT8.1, you are limited to joining, but not creating, Homegroups. Moreover, with WinRT, you can’t share local content with other users. Same for those systems set up as domain members: They cannot create Homegroups, although they can join them. Also, using Homegroups is somewhat slower than Workgroup file sharing. There may be more issues, I’m sure I haven’t uncovered them all. Again, I like the classic way of setting up Windows networking, where everything works with all versions of Windows, period.
When you create a Homegroup, you’ll be promoted to choose which files and devices you want to share, as well as the various permission levels. The file folder categories, called “Libraries” are the following: Pictures, Videos, Music, Documents and Printers & Devices. Your choices are either “Shared” or “Not Shared”. That’s it. REMEMBER: You’re not designating file types, you’re designating folders stored under your user profile, your Libraries. Once you make this selection, you’ll then be able to navigate to the shared resources on the other computers on the network by going to the Homegroup section in the Windows File Explorer.
PUBLIC FOLDER SHARING: Whether your network is set up as a workgroup or a Homegroup, users on a network can always use the “Public” folder to share files. This includes anyone who has access to a computer, either over the network or locally. Creating a Homegroup automatically enables the Public Folder, but workgroup sharing requires that you turn the Public folder on. Do this by navigating to C:\Users\Public in Windows/File Explorer. In Win7, you’ll have to click “Share With” in the Windows Explorer menu bar, then locate the Public Folder Sharing section and turn on sharing. In Win 8, select the Share tab in File Explorer, then select Advanced Sharing Settings, expand the All Networks section and then go to the Public Folder Sharing section to turn on the Public folder. Once you’ve created it, it’s useful to right-click and included it in it’s own library. One main advantage of this is that, if you use Win8, it will automatically be backed up by Win8’s File History feature.
The great thing about the Public folder is that any files that you save to that folder, or any of its sub-folders, will then be available to any and all users who have access to that computer, through the network or otherwise. REMEMBER: The Public folder on a computer on the network is separate from the Public folders on any other computer on the network. It’s not shared across the entire network, just that computer on the network.
NETWORK FILE SHARING: Finally, we get there. Locate the file or folder which you want to share, then right click on Share With. In the fly-out menu, you have the very basic choices of sharing with a Homegroup or specific persons. If that suits your purposes, do so. Or, for the full sharing choices, go to Properties at the bottom of the drop-down menu, then select the Sharing tab in the resulting window. In Win7, you’ll see the window below; in Win8 you’ll get a similar more stylized window, but still with a “Share” tab on the top.
Clicking on the “Advanced Sharing” button will reveal the box on the left, below; selecting the Permissions button will take you to the box on the right:
Again, initially it’s a good idea to allow “everyone” all permissions by checking all of the “allow” check boxes in the everyone group. You can always adjust and add appropriate permission restrictions later once everything is working.
Win8’s sharing window has even more capabilities: It has additional options for e-mailing, printing, faxing, zipping or burning a file or folder. It also has the option to extend various permissions to sub-folders as well as the files in those subfolders, so you don’t have to individually adjust the permissions. More about that below.
TEST, TEST, TEST: After you’ve set up all of the computers on the network, make sure that they “see” each other. Go to Windows File Explorer or Computer>Network to make sure that all of the computers you have set up are displayed and sharing the desired files and/or folders. If not, check your settings.
COMBINING DIFFERENT OPERATING SYSTEMS: Just as there are some limitations when using Homegroups as opposed to Workgroups (see above) there are also some things that don’t work together with different versions of the Windows O/S. That said, you can set up a network containing computers which use different Windows operating systems. Even combining Apple and PCs. It just takes a little more trial-and-error. Also, just because your computer purports to let you share file folders, don’t assume (especially in pre-Win8 versions) that you are automatically sharing sub-folders within that folder. Most likely, you’re not. You may have to drill down the path, sharing each sub-folder until you reach the desired file or folder. Or just start with that folder, although you may have to share each folder going back up to some degree, depending on your computer’s file hierarchy. Also, you may or may not be able to share a “root” folder (like C:/). Your computer may not let you or, if you do, it won’t share the sub-folders anyway, particularly if you have “Users” accounts.
OR TRY CLOUD SHARING: These days, both corporate and personal data is increasingly opting for cloud storage. If you use cloud storage, you’re using a networked computer, just someone else’s. (Just like you’re networking when you connect with Cable or FIOS; you’re networked with the cable or phone company’s server computer.) Services, many free, like Microsoft One Drive, Google Drive, iCloud and Dropbox make it easy to sync your data across multiple devices (smart phones, computers, pads, tablets), even simultaneously. It’s quite easy. But not all that secure. With traditional workgroup computer networking, you have a great deal of control over the users that can view that data and their access, but not so with the cloud. Once you upload the data to the cloud, you lose most control. Also, if the cloud is down or hacked, you may lose access to crucial data if you’re not near your computer when you need it. And, if your storage becomes too large, you may incur subscription fees. But, on the up side, you’ve got a backup for your data if it becomes lost or corrupt on your own computer.
OR REMOTE ACCESS: Newer versions of the Windows operating systems as well as many free and paid software programs (see FAQ #49) allow either yourself or someone else access to your computer to view and possibly edit or print files. As do VPNs (click HERE for more about how to set this up). Many even allow file transfers in either direction between the main and remote computer. These are the type of programs you encounter when you allow a tech help desk to take control of your computer to solve a technical problem. But these types of problems should only be used by trusted individuals, because they can be misused to steal information or corrupt a computer if used improperly. [The Security section of this site discusses, for example, the malware scam where hackers pose as Microsoft representatives over the telephone, then gain access to your computer to install malware and talk you into paying for its removal.] Unless you are using it to get into your own computer remotely or are allowing technical support to gain access to your computer on a one-time basis while you are watching, I don’t recommend it.
OR E-MAIL: If it’s just a one-shot share, you can always just e-mail the file to another user. (I’m assuming the users are remote, because otherwise the transfer would certainly be via flash drive or the like.) But the 5Mb limit imposed by most ISPs will prevent the transfer of multiple or large files such as graphics, music, videos, photos and the like, and it’s also a relatively slow process. And, if you must use this method to transmit something personal or important, use PDF format (see FAQ #36) for security.
SO WHAT’S BEST?
Just like most decisions to be made in computing, starting with the selection of the computer itself, the ultimate choice depends on what the user is actually trying to accomplish by sharing the data. Cloud storage is excellent, but somewhat insecure, if you want to share files and folders across devices and users. Homegroups are excellent for basic file sharing for videos and music on a home network between users like a family. But traditional domain and workgroup sharing, with its multiple security settings, is much better for users who require control over who can access information and what they can do with it. If you’re a corporation, it’s a no-brainer, you’ve got to have this degree of control. The middle ground is sharing using Public folders: It’s easy to drop-and-drag files to the Public folder for sharing with specific people and just as simple to remove it from the Public folder if you change your mind or it’s no longer necessary. It’s nice to know there are choices.