Terminal Service Administration and Folder Redirection
Although I tend to think of Remote Desktop for Administration as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, you may not always be able to use it for all of your servers. For some reason, if Remote Desktop for Administration is enabled on a server that’s running Windows Server 2003, then the server can not be configured to use offline files and vice versa. The two services are mutually exclusive and can not be used on the same machine. For most servers this shouldn’t be a big deal, but it can present some challenges for file servers. In this article, I will explain why that is and how you can decide which of these two features is more important to you.
Several years ago, I was working as a network administrator for a large company. As is typical for network administrators, I used to get a lot of calls late at night for stupid problems. I would inevitably have to get out of bed and drive to the office to restart a service, unstick a print queue, or something like that. I was overjoyed when Microsoft released Windows 2000 Server because it included a previously unavailable feature known as the Terminal Service Administration Mode. The idea was that even if you didn’t want to create a full blown thin client environment, you could still use the Terminal Services for administrative purposes. This meant that when I got those late night phone calls I could simply dial into the network (VPN didn’t exist at the time) and use the Terminal Services to remotely control the server console. I was able to fix whatever the problem was a whole lot faster than if I had made the drive to the office, which made the boss happy. It also gave me the option of going back to bed after the problem was fixed, and that made me very happy!
A lot has changed since that time, but Terminal Service Administration mode still exists in Windows Server 2003; it just has a different name. Microsoft now dubs the service Remote Desktop for Administration, but it’s pretty much the same thing as Terminal Service Administration Mode. Whatever you want to call it, this service has proved to be so handy that Windows Server 2003 installs it by default (although it isn’t enabled by default). To this day I find Remote Desktop for Administration to be a very handy tool.
Although I pretty much think of this service as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, using it may not always be an option. For some reason, if Remote Desktop for Administration is enabled on a server that’s running Windows Server 2003, then the server can not be configured to use offline files and vice versa. The two services are mutually exclusive and can not be used on the same machine. For most servers this shouldn’t be a big deal, but it can present some challenges for file servers.
In case you aren’t familiar with offline files, it is a mechanism that allows users to work with files that are stored on a file server, even when they are not actually connected to the server. Offline files are most commonly thought of in relation to mobile users and in relation to continuity of business.
Mobile users benefit from offline files because there are many times during which connecting to the corporate network is impossible. For example, not too long ago I had to fly to Tokyo. I knew that it was going to be a very long flight from the United States, so I set up my file server to provide me with offline access to the folders containing all of the articles that I have written. During the flight I wrote a couple of articles and made a few grammatical corrections to a couple of other articles. Likewise I wrote another article on the flight home. When I eventually got home and reconnected to my network, the new articles that I had written were automatically copied to my file server. Likewise, the articles that I had modified during the course of my trip were also copied to the network automatically.
Using offline files for continuity of business works similarly. The basic idea is that if your file server were to go down, the users could still continue to work with any files that you have chosen to make available offline. When the server comes back up, any changes or additions that the users have made to files while offline are synchronized with the file server.
Now that I have explained what offline files are, you can probably see how they would be handy, but it might still be unclear what the big deal is about not being able to use them in conjunction to Remote Desktop for Administration. After all, mobile users can be trained to simply copy the files that they need to their laptop prior to traveling. They don’t absolutely have to use offline files. Likewise, you don’t really need offline files to insure that users can continue to work when a file server goes down. Distributed File System replicas are usually a much better solution than offline files for keeping users productive during system outages.
The reason that not being able to run Remote Desktop for Administration in conjunction with offline file access is a big deal for file servers is because offline file access is highly recommended if you are going to be using folder redirection.
In case you are not familiar with folder redirection, it allows you to redirect certain user specific folders from the local hard disk to a share on the network. There are several reasons why you might want to redirect folders. The number one reason why administrators typically redirect folders is to prevent users from saving data on a local hard drive. We have all seen cases in which a workstation’s hard drive fails and a user ends up losing all of their documents in addition to anything else that might be set up on their hard drive. Such situations can be prevented through the use of folder redirection. Folder Redirection copies the user’s entire profile (including the My Documents folder) to a network drive. The user still has the illusion that their profile is being stored locally, but in reality their profile is located on a network share where it can be backed up each night.
Another benefit to this type of folder redirection is that it allows you to have roaming profiles. Roaming profiles simply mean that if a user decides to work from a different computer then their documents, desktop, favorites, etc. will follow them from one machine to the next.
As I said though, Microsoft recommends offline file access for this type of folder redirection. The reason is because if the file server containing the user profiles were to go down, users could log in but they would not have access to their desktop, files, etc. unless their profile had been previously cached to the local machine. With this in mind, let’s go back to our original question of whether you should use offline file access to Terminal Server Administration on file servers.
I can’t tell you which option you should use because you have to do what’s right for your own individual network. What I can tell you though is that which ever option you choose, there are workarounds to the functionality that you lose. For example, if you decided that you have to have Remote Desktop for Administration for whatever reason, you would not be able to use offline files. As an alternative, you could use DFS replicas to insure that the user’s profiles are always accessible. Keep in mind though that if you are not using offline files, then Windows will have to pull the users entire profile across the network every time it is used. This can make for some extremely long log in and log off times.
On the other hand, if you decide that you need offline file access, then you won’t be able to use Remote Desktop for Administration. While you won’t be able to remotely control the server without the aid of a third party product, you can still use all of the normal management tools, such as the Event Viewer and the Computer Management Console. All of these tools have the ability to connect to and manage remote machines.
If you are in the habit of remotely managing your servers, you may have some tough decisions to make when it comes to your file servers. In this article, I have tried to illustrate the pros and cons of using Remote Desktop for Administration vs. using offline file access.