Using and Troubleshooting Offline Files

Think like a user to help head off problems

In "Configuring Offline Files," May 2002, InstantDoc ID 24554, I discuss setting up and configuring Windows 2000's Offline Files feature. When you configure the feature, you need to understand its day-to-day use so that you can assist users as they take advantage of Offline Files and help them troubleshoot problems that might arise.

Marking Files for Offline Use
To start using Offline Files while connected to the network, a user opens My Computer, Windows Explorer or My Network Places and selects a shared remote folder or individual files in that folder. When a user selects an entire folder for offline access, any files placed in that folder in the future automatically become part of the user's Offline Files selections, and Win2K automatically synchronizes them for offline use. Setting up Offline Files for a folder is an excellent way to make sure that users stay up to date regarding important department information. You can create shared folders according to department, division, or project, then instruct users to select the appropriate folder or folders for offline use. To help users get started with Offline Files, you might want to familiarize yourself with the steps they'll need to go through.

To configure a selected folder or file for offline use, you (as a user) select the folder or file, then choose File, Make Available Offline from the menu bar. Win2K launches the Offline Files Wizard to walk you through the process. Click Next in the wizard's opening screen to begin. On the next screen, specify whether you want to automatically synchronize the Offline Files when you log on and log off. This option is selected by default, but you can clear the choice if you prefer not to automate the synchronization process. Click Next.

Specify whether you want a periodic synchronization reminder message (in the form of a balloon over the taskbar system tray) to appear when you're working offline. Also specify whether you want to place a shortcut to your Offline Files Folder on your desktop. A better idea is to drag the desktop shortcut to the Quick Launch toolbar for even faster access. (As I explain in "Configuring Offline Files," you can enable these features for users when you configure their local systems. Even when you do so, though, users will see these options in the Offline Files Wizard.)

Click Finish. The wizard synchronizes the files, putting a copy of each file you selected in your Offline Files Folder. As soon as the Synchronizing Files message disappears, the files are ready for offline use.

Open the Offline Files Folder. This folder displays information about the status of the files and the network connection. The Offline Files Folder also displays the path to each file's source folder—important information because the local system stores all offline files in one folder, even when they come from multiple network folders. Keep in mind that the permissions on offline files remain the same as on the shared resource. A read-only file is still read only when you're working locally.

Files You Can't (or Shouldn't) Use Offline
As I explain in "Configuring Offline Files," Win2K preconfigures some file types (i.e., .slm, .mdb, .ldb, .mdw, .mde, .db, and .pst files) as being unsuitable for offline work. When you select any of these file types or a folder that contains any of these file types for offline access, you receive an error message. (See the sidebar "Excluding File Types," page 70, to learn how to specify other restricted file types.)

On a similar note, when you select an encrypted file for offline access, you receive a warning that the offline copy won't be encrypted. You can opt to skip the encrypted files or receive the files without benefit of encryption. Working offline with decrypted files can be dangerous, especially when using a laptop computer; these systems have a high rate of theft and intrusion. Encourage users not to work offline with encrypted files.

Working Offline and Synchronizing Changes
As a user, when you log off the network or shut down your computer, you see a Synchronization reminder (assuming that you didn't configure Offline Files to skip this handy function). Unless you have an extremely large number of offline files or your offline files are very large, the synchronization process takes only a few seconds.

To work with a file offline, open the local Offline Files Folder and double-click the file you want to work with. This action opens the file in the appropriate software application. When you make changes and save the file, the file's status changes in the Offline Files Folder's Synchronization column, as Figure 1 shows. (You might need to choose View, Refresh to update the display.)

If you've enabled automatic synchronization to occur when you log on, Win2K automatically synchronizes your offline files as soon as you click OK in the Log On to Windows dialog box. If you disabled automatic synchronization during logon, you need to manually synchronize your modified offline files. To do so, open your Offline Files Folder, then choose Tools, Synchronize from the menu bar. This action opens the Items to Synchronize dialog box, which Figure 2 shows. Select the check boxes for the items that you want to synchronize, then click Synchronize.

If you don't want to use automatic synchronization but want to avoid the requirement to synchronize manually, you can configure synchronization to occur when your computer is idle or at specific times. To configure synchronization for computer idle time, open the Items to Synchronize dialog box, then click Setup to open the Synchronization Settings dialog box. Go to the On Idle tab to enable synchronization during computer idle times, then click Advanced to open the Idle Settings dialog box, which Figure 3 shows. Establish the specifications for idle-time synchronization, then click OK.

To schedule synchronization, go to the Synchronization Settings' Scheduled tab. Click Add to launch the Scheduled Synchronization Wizard, then select the appropriate options. You can create multiple schedules. Note that the Offline Files feature completely manages scheduled synchronization tasks, so these tasks don't appear in the system Scheduled Tasks folder. Don't use scheduled synchronization unless you regularly log on to the network and can choose a time when you know you'll be connected. Although the Scheduled Synchronization Wizard has an option to connect to the network automatically if you aren't already connected at the scheduled time, this option works only when you connect through a dial-up connection, not when you connect at the office through a NIC or a docking station.

Troubleshooting Synchronization
If only one user accesses particular files through the Offline Files feature, that user probably won't encounter a problem with synchronization. However, that situation is unlikely in the enterprise. Files and folders usually are available for offline access to multiple users, in which case synchronization becomes more complicated. Again, put yourself in your users' shoes so that you can help them solve the following common synchronization problems.

Network files have changed. When another user modifies the network copy of a file while you (as a user) are working on the same file offline, a situation called file conflict occurs, and Win2K prompts you to decide how you want to save your modified file. During synchronization, you receive a Resolve File Conflict dialog box, which offers three choices for resolving the conflict. You can write your version of the file to the network, replacing the changed file; keep the network version of the file, replacing your local copy; or keep both versions by entering a new filename for your local file before copying it to the network.

Network files have been deleted. When you try to synchronize an offline file for which the network copy has been deleted, you receive an error message that no matching file exists on the network. You can copy the file's local version to the network, or you can delete the file from your computer.

You want to remove a file from your Offline Files Folder. When you delete an offline file from your computer, the local system doesn't remove the file from your system. Instead, it simply changes the file's status to reflect that the file was deleted locally. To remove the file from your local Offline Files Folder, select the file on the server (while you're working online) and choose File, Make Available Offline to toggle off offline access.

Conflicts occur when you connect to multiple LANs. Even when multiple LAN connections are available to you, the Items to Synchronize dialog box doesn't specify which LAN connection you're using. When your Offline Files Folder contains files from more than one LAN connection, the Offline Files feature can't determine which files to synchronize according to the LAN you're connected to, even though each file listing contains the \\servename\sharename path. As a result, during automatic synchronization, you receive an error message (for those files that aren't available on the LAN to which you've logged on) that the synchronization process couldn't connect to the server. (I consider this inability to handle multiple LAN connections to be a bug, but Microsoft hasn't yet indicated that the company is working on a fix.)

When you see this error message, click Skip. You must click Skip for every file that isn't available from the current network connection.

To avoid this error, reconfigure synchronization before you log on to a particular LAN. Open Windows Explorer or My Computer, then choose Tools, Synchronize from the menu bar. Make sure that only folders that are on the LAN you're about to join are selected.

Get to Work
For networks that have a substantial amount of group collaboration for projects, the Offline Files feature offers a way to make sure all your users can work, whether or not they're connected to the network. More important, the synchronization of offline files means that one user's work won't overwrite another's.

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