One of the subjects that I get asked for technical help on most frequently is what used to be called the "network neighborhood," or "NetHood." (NetHood is a feature of Microsoft networking that provides users a list of the systems on a network.) I'm usually happy to help solve some knotty network problem, but this is one set of problems that I dearly wish would go away. It won't, however, until we change our thinking about how to find things on a network–maybe it's time to do just that.

In its first late-1980s incarnation (the output of a command "net view"), NetHood made some sense. Networks in those days had very few servers, each of which had only a few shares each. Rather than having to remember that the office's shared documents were on ugly share names like "\\tiger\ofcshares," you could just type "net view" to get a list of all of the servers on the network. (This might yield the names TIGER, LION, and OCELOT–everyone used cute server names in those days.) Then, your memory might be jogged ( "ah, yes, that's right, it was something on TIGER!"), so you'd type "net view \\tiger" to see the names of the shares on that server. Underneath "net view" was a multitude of bandwidth-wasting broadcasts, but in those days, LAN bandwidth seemed infinite and thus no problem to waste.

The 90s-era Microsoft OSs wrought a major change in that every Microsoft OS from Windows for Workgroups onward enabled the file server service for both client and server OSs. All of a sudden, "net view" produced a much larger list of possible "servers," all broadcasting their presences every 12 minutes. (Maybe LAN bandwidth wasn't infinite after all!) The GUIs that those OSs sported meant that NetHood got a nice windowed interface that simplified clicking around looking for a network resource. People got used to this fairly inefficient way of finding things on the network, and even grew to expect to see their workstations in NetHood.

As those broadcast-happy OSs appeared, network managers responded by blocking most broadcasts, hamstringing NetHood. Microsoft responded with a bit of scaffolding to NetHood-- WINS. (I'm simplifying a bit, as WINS does other things as well.) Additionally, more and more networks found themselves with not just a handful of true, honest-to-God servers (rather than workstations claiming serverdom), but dozens or hundreds of actual file and print servers. Clever naming schemes saved users from having to spend hours clicking through NetHood to find essential network shares, but clearly NetHood's usefulness had come to an end as a resource-searching tool.

With Windows 2000, Microsoft offered a replacement: a sort of "classified ads" section in Active Directory (AD). File and print shares could be "published" in AD, and they contained keywords that people could use to locate these shares. Thus, AD offered a way to stop playing "eenie-meenie-minie-moe" and instead to ask AD, "what shares are related to the water quality study?" After publishing your file and print shares, you could then turn off the Computer Browser service on your systems, quell the broadcasts, and make your network resources more useful for your users. (Most people haven't noticed it, but the Computer Browser service is disabled by default on Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008–they use a different census-taking approach called Network Discovery.)

But wait a minute–that more efficient, to-the-point network search technology appeared back in February of 2000? Then why doesn't anyone use it, and why do we still use NetHood? Two reasons, I think. First, Microsoft didn't talk much about it. Win2K brought a truly huge host of new features – AD, Group Policy, new software deployment technologies, you name it – and I think Microsoft just never found the time to highlight it, which is a shame.

The second reason? It'd have to be the software on the client side that asks AD for that list of shares related to the water quality study. The Win2K Professional AD search interface was pretty good, but it then just about disappeared in Windows XP. (It's there, but only if you have "common tasks" enabled, and who has the screen real estate to burn on that?) Vista has a much-improved one that you can see by clicking Start / Network and then the "Search Active Directory" button.

Interested in reclaiming some network bandwidth? Then start publishing shares, tell your users how to search AD for those shares, and watch your network chatter drop!