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Why Can't I See My Computer on the Network?

Your peer-to-peer network is humming along, but you can't see all the PCs connected? We offer several options to browse your network resources.

by Ronald V. Pacchiano

Why Can't I See My Computer on the Network?

One of the most difficult and annoying problems faced by users on peer-to-peer networks is an inability to see in Network Neighborhood or My Network Places all of the systems that are part of the workgroup. Unfortunately, this is a more common problem than anyone would like to admit. A variety of reasons could cause this to happen, but typically it's associated to an issue with the Computer Browsing Service.

The Computer Browsing Service is used by My Network Places, Network Neighborhood, Windows Explorer or a browse window within applications to view the workgroups on the network and the computers within them. This service is enabled by default on Windows computers that have the "File and Print Sharing for Microsoft Networks" component installed. The computer on which My Network Places, Network Neighborhood or Windows Explorer is being used is known as the browse client. The computer that is providing the list of workgroups or the list of systems within a workgroup is known as a browse server. The list of workgroups and the systems within a specific workgroup is known as the browse list. By assigning the browse server role to a specific computer, the Computer Browser service lowers the amount of network traffic and eliminates the need for all computers on the network to maintain a list of all the workgroups and servers on the network.
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The computer that acts as the Master Browse Server is determined through an election process. This happens automatically. For a given workgroup, there is only one Master Browse Server. On a network that contains different versions of Windows, it's sometimes necessary to configure the computers so that one computer always becomes the Master Browse Server and other computers do not attempt to become browse servers. However, the computer that is designated as the Master Browse Server must remain on at all times. Otherwise, attempts to browse the network from the other computers will result in a The list of servers for this workgroup is not available error message.

To designate a Master Browse Server on your network, do the following:

For the designated Master Browse Server computer, configure it to be a preferred Master Browse Server.

For a computer running Windows XP/2000:

  • Launch the REGEDIT utility by clicking Start\Run\Regedit.exe.
  • Set the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Browser\Parameters \MaintainServerList registry setting to Yes.

For a computer running Windows 9x:

  • Go to the Control Panel, right-click on Network Neighborhood and select Properties.
  • Change the Browse Master setting to Enabled in the advanced properties of the File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks component.

For all the other computers on the network, configure them to be ineligible to become a browse server.

For a computer running Windows XP/2000:

  • Launch the REGEDIT utility by clicking Start\Run\Regedit.exe.
  • Set the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Browser\Parameters \MaintainServerList registry setting to No.

For a computer running Windows 9x:

  • Go to the Control Panel, right-click on Network Neighborhood and select Properties.
  • Change the Browse Master setting to Disabled in the advanced properties of the File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks component.

Even with the Computer Browser service properly configured, you need to keep in mind that it does not provide real-time updating of the browse list. Messages sent to maintain the browse list are sent periodically, typically every 12 or 15 minutes. This is done to keep the network resources required for computer browsing low. Therefore, the list of computers and workgroups being displayed on your network might not be 100 percent accurate. This makes the Computer Browsing service somewhat problematic and unreliable.

But there are other options.

Another mechanism that might help to alleviate some browsing problems is to add an LMHOSTS file to your system. An LMHOSTS file is a static table that resolves a host name to an IP address and assists with remote NetBIOS name resolution on computers that, for one reason or another, cannot respond to NetBIOS name-query broadcasts.

You can find a sample LMHOSTS file in the %SYSTEMROOT%\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC directory in Windows 2000 and Windows XP. The file is named LMHOSTS.SAM. After you make the appropriate changes to the file, it must be saved as LMHOSTS (without the SAM extension) before it can be used. This is important to note because sometimes Notepad will inadvertently place a TXT extension to the end of a document you've created. This would prevent the file from functioning properly.

The format of the LMHOST file is typically IP address, system name and the extension #PRE. Following any entry in the file with the characters "#PRE" will cause that entry to be preloaded into the name cache for faster resolution. An example of the contents of an LMHOSTS file would look like this:


192.168.1.110  TDS-SERVER  #PRE
192.168.1.111  FRONT-DESK  #PRE
192.168.1.112  ADMIN#PRE
192.168.1.113  TDS-CAMERA #PRE
192.168.1.114  TDS-WS#PRE

192.168.1.115 HELPDESK#PRE

It is important to remember that since an LMHOSTS file contains a static computer-name-to-IP-address mapping, it may cause conflicts if you're also using DHCP to dynamically assign IP addresses on the same network. So I would recommend that you assign a static IP address to each system — least until you upgrade to a client/server environment where the LMHOSTS file will no longer be needed. For more information on the LMHOSTS, please refer to my previous column here.

However, you don't necessarily need to see a machine in Network Neighborhood or Windows Explorer to be able to access its shared resources. As long as TCP is correctly configured and they can ping each other, all you would need to know is the systems IP address and share name.

For example, say I want to connect the computer in the conference room to the PRACNET folder on my desktop PC, all I would need to know is the IP address of my desktop system. To find that out, simply click Start\All Programs\Accessories and select Command Prompt. At the prompt, type IPCONFIG and press Enter. This will list your IP address. Ours is 192.168.10.100.

Now that you've got the IP address of the computer you want to connect to, go back to the conference room computer. Assuming that you've already shared the PRACNET folder, just follow these steps to connect to it:

  • Open Windows Explorer
  • On the menu at the top click "Tools"
  • Select "Map Network Drive"
  • Assign it a drive letter. It could be any available drive letter, but for our example we'll use "Z."
  • On the folder line enter the IP address and share name; example, \\192.168.10.100\PRACNET
  • Click "OK"

Note: If you're going to use this share on a regular basis, be sure the Reconnect at Logon option is selected.

That's it, now drive Z is connected to the conference room PC, and I never had to worry about being able to actually see it in Windows Explorer or My Network Places again.

To truly minimize browsing problems, though, the best solution is to upgrade your network to a client/server environment. In a client/server environment, there are numerous ways for PCs to find each other. Inclusion in the Active Directory, NetBIOS broadcast, WINS servers and DNS servers. All of these mechanisms will help to prevent browsing problems and make these headaches a thing of the past. Best of luck!

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