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Using Folder Redirection

by Mitch Tulloch

Many Windows applications save their work in My Documents or one of its subfolders such as My Pictures or My Music. For home users this is fine, but in a business environment it's not a good idea to store users' work on their local machine. The main reason is that typically only servers are backed up, not desktop computers. So if a user's machine crashes, his work will be gone if it was stored on his machine rather than on the network. The solution is to use folder redirection, and that's what we'll look at in this article.

The easiest way to configure folder redirection is to use Group Policy in an Active Directory environment. Let's say the Boston branch office for our company has two groups of users (Sales and Support) that need to save their documents on a network server instead of their local machines. The Jones sisters, Mary and Sally, belong to the Sales group, while the Smith brothers, Al and Bob, belong to Support. Let's say further that we want to redirect the work for each group of users to a different share on file server Test220. Specifically, members of the Sales group will save their work in \\Test220\SalesDocs, while members of Support will save theirs in \\Test220\SupportDocs. Finally, let's assume these users and groups are all located in the Boston organizational unit in our Active Directory domain. That way we can use a Group Policy Object (GPO) linked to the Boston organizational unit to configure folder redirection for these groups.

Here's what the Boston GPO settings for folder redirection look like:

Figure 1
Figure 1. Group Policy Object settings for folder redirection.

As you can see, there are four folders you can redirect:

  • Application Data--Stores state information for applications; for example, custom dictionaries, toolbar settings, and other items not stored in the Registry.
  • Desktop--Stores the contents of the user's desktop including shortcuts, folders, and files.
  • My Documents--Stores the user's work files such as documents, spreadsheets, and so on.
  • Start Menu--Stores the shortcuts and program groups that make up the user's Start menu.

These four folders are also part of the user's profile and are located as follows:

%UserProfile%\Application Data
%UserProfile%\My Documents
%UserProfile%\Start Menu

where %UserProfile% is an environment variable indicating where the user's profile is stored. For example, the local user profile for user Mary Jones would be stored in C:\Documents and Settings\mjones on her desktop computer.

Which of these four folders should you redirect? Usually only My Documents, since that's where the user's work is saved, but if users tend to copy or move files or folders to their desktop for easy access, you may want to redirect the Desktop folder as well. Redirecting the Application Data folder is generally not a good idea; some applications need their state information to be stored locally or problems occur like disappearing toolbars. And redirecting the Start Menu is generally not recommended, as there are other ways to control what appears on the Start menu using Group Policy.

So let's focus on redirecting only the My Documents folder to our network server. Right-click on My Documents in the right-hand pane above and select Properties, then choose Advanced so we can designate different target locations for different groups:

Figure 2
Figure 2. Configuring folder redirection for My Documents.

Click on Add and select the Sales group. Leave the target location as "Create a folder for each user under the root path," and specify the UNC path to the SalesDocs share:

Figure 3
Figure 3. Members of Sales will have My Documents redirected to the SalesDocs share on Test220.

Click on OK and repeat the process to redirect My Documents for members of Support to the SupportDocs share. Your folder redirection settings for My Documents now look like this:

Figure 4
Figure 4. Folder redirection settings for My Documents for different groups.

Now switch to the Settings tab to view details of how redirection will occur:

Figure 5
Figure 5. Additional redirection settings for My Documents.

Note that each user will have exclusive rights to his redirected folder. Also, any files currently stored in My Documents on his desktop computer will be copied to the network share. (This will happen the next time the user logs off.) Wait for Group Policy to refresh (or use gpupdate /force to force a refresh), and the folder redirection settings are applied to the user's profile.

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