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Troubleshooting Q&A - November 30, 2004

Discover the Joys of Automatic Network Configuration

One of the lesser-known features in Windows XP makes it easy to move a mobile computer from a home network to the office LAN without needing to manually reconfigure TCP/IP settings. And it doesn't matter if you are moving between wired networks, wireless networks or any other networked environment.

By Ron Pacchiano

Q. I have a pretty active schedule, so I don't get to spend a lot of time at home. So when the time came for me to get a new computer, I opted to get a really powerful laptop: a Dell Inspiron 9100 running Windows XP Professional and equipped with all the bells and whistles.

Since I spend so much time at the office, in class or at my girlfriend's place, having the laptop allows me to still get a lot accomplished. The fact that I have access to a high-speed Internet connection at each of these locations is also a benefit. The problem is that each of these networks is different and requires its own unique network configurations. For example, the network in my office requires the laptop to be configured with a static IP address and an Ethernet cable. Meanwhile my girlfriend and my parents both have a wireless network in their homes. These networks use dynamic IP addresses and each requires different WEP credentials.

While I appreciate having broadband Internet access in each of these locations, having to reconfigure my laptop each time before I can use them is a real hassle. While this isn't the worst situation imaginable, it is nevertheless very tedious and frankly more then a bit annoying. So my question is: Is there a way for me to configure the notebook with a static IP address so that it could participate on my company's network and then have it automatically revert back to obtaining an IP address automatically when I'm using one of the wireless network?

A. I know from firsthand experience how irritating it can be to have to reconfigure your network configuration every time you move from one location to another. Until Windows XP, this used to be a common problem. Most people would try using a third-party utility or the more talented among them would set up custom script files to automatically update the network settings. This worked, but was often problematic and turned out to be more trouble then it was worth. However, this changed with Windows XP.

One of the less-known features in Windows XP is Automatic Configuration for Multiple Networks. Past versions of Windows required you to remember complex network settings and change them each time you moved your computer from one network to another. In Windows XP, automatic configuration makes it easy for you to move a mobile computer from a home network to the Local Area Network (LAN) in your office, without needing to manually reconfigure TCP/IP settings. This feature is useful whether you move your computer between wired networks, wireless networks or any other networked environment.

The way it works is simple: If your computer cannot find your network it will automatically try an alternative configuration. This will work on networks using either a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server or static IP address settings. To configure Windows XP's Automatic Configuration feature just follow these simple steps:

  1. Open Network Connections. If it isn't being displayed on your desktop, it can be found in the Control Panel. (Click Start, Control Panel, Network and Internet Connections, and then click Network Connections.)
  2. Right-click the network connection that you want to configure, and then click Properties.
  3. On the General tab, select the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and then click the Properties button.
  4. On the General tab, click Obtain an IP address automatically. This will allow the laptop to work on your parents' or girlfriend's home network.
  5. On the Alternate Configuration tab, click User configured and then enter the appropriate settings for your office environment. This includes the following:
    • IP address
    • Subnet mask
    • Default gateway
    • Preferred and alternate DNS server
    • Preferred and alternate WINS server
  6. Click OK.

You must be logged on as an administrator or a member of the Administrators group to complete this procedure. A network that's using policies might prevent these settings from working, but in this case I don't foresee that being an issue.

You might also be interested to know that this technique can be used to automatically configure Wireless Network Clients. With automatic configuration for wireless networks, you can create a list of wireless networks, and specify the order in which to attempt connections. To configure settings on the Wireless Networks tab, you must be logged on as an administrator, and you must use a wireless network adapter that supports the Wireless Zero Configuration service. Check with the manufacturer of your wireless network equipment to see if your wireless adapter is compliant with this standard.

To configure automatic wireless network configuration just follow these steps:

  1. Open Network Connections.
  2. Right-click Wireless Network Connection., and then click Properties.
  3. On the Wireless Networks tab and do one of the following:
    • To enable automatic wireless network configuration, select the Use Windows to configure my wireless network settings. check box. This check box is selected by default.
    • To disable automatic wireless network configuration, clear the Use Windows to configure my wireless network settings. check box.

Windows XP will alert you when your network card detects signals from an available wireless network. In the list of Available Networks, click the network name, and then click Configure.

Your wireless network card will be automatically configured to match the settings of that network and a network connection attempt will be made. If a network does not broadcast its network name, it will not appear under Available Networks. To add a network that you know is available, under Preferred networks, click Add. In Wireless Network Properties, specify the network name (Service Set Identifier) and, if needed, the wireless network key settings. The list of available networks can be updated at anytime by simply clicking Refresh..

If you are connecting to multiple wireless networks, your preferred network might not be at the top of the list. The order in which Windows XP attempts to connect with the preferred networks can be easily modified. Under Preferred networks., select the wireless network that you want to move to a new position on the list and then click the Move up or Move down button, respectively.

That's all there is to it. Once you implement these configurations changes you should be able to move your laptop between any of those locations transparently.

I hope you find this helpful. Good Luck!

Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we’ll consider them all. Earthweb HardwareCentral earthwebdeveloper CrossNodes Datamation

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