Saturday, December 3, 2011

How to Use Offline Files in Windows to Cache Your Networked Files Offline


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The problem with storing all your files on a file server or networked machine is that when you leave the network, how are you going to access your files? Instead of using a VPN or Dropbox, you can use the Offline Files feature built into Windows.
Note: You should probably not be using this guide to make your 2 terabyte movie collection available offline—while it may work, it is not recommended just because the Offline Files feature isn’t made for storing massive amounts of data offline.

Setting Up Offline Files

If you’re new to networking, be sure to check out our guide to networking Windows 7 with XP or Vista, or the guide on how to share files and printers between Windows 7 and XP.
First you’ll want to connect to the PC that hosts the shared folder. There’s a number of ways to do this, but one easy method is to use the Windows + R key combination to bring up the Run box, and then type two backslashes and the IP address or hostname of the PC you want to connect to. You could also do the same thing in the Windows Explorer location box, of course.

Once you connect to the machine (you may need to input a username and password, depending on how your network is setup), you’ll see the folders that are shared on the other computer. Right-click on the folder and select Map Network drive. On the next screen, you’ll be asked to pick a drive letter and optionally use different credentials.

Note: again, you could map the drive a different way if you want.
Once you’ve mapped a drive and opened it up in Windows Explorer, you can go to any sub-folder of the drive and select “Always available offline” from the context menu.

Once all the files have been processed you will get a message telling you that they will be available offline.

For example, I have made a single folder called “Personal” available offline, which contains a single text file called My Plans, which contains “Text Text Text Text” as seen below.

So now if you disconnect from the network you should still be able to access your document, as seen in the following screenshot:

Note: You will be able to see a list of the other folders, as it has cached a list of the folders, but if you try open a folder that you have not made available offline it will appear to be empty until you connect to the network again.
So now that offline files is set up you can open your files and make changes to them.

Manually Initiating a Sync

While most of the time you would want your syncing to be done automatically, you could always do it manually if you choose, by right-clicking on the folder that contains offline files, selecting Sync –> Sync selected offline files from the context menu. You could alternatively do this on a per-drive basis.

Scheduling Sync Jobs

If you would rather automate things, you can set up the syncing to take place automatically. To do this, type Sync Center into the Start Menu and press enter. When the sync center opens click on the View sync partnerships link on the left hand side, then double-click on the offline files that appear on the right hand side to get a list of what you files are available offline.

Once you have selected the folder that you want to schedule syncing for, the Schedule button will become available on the menu bar. Once you select it, a screen will appear asking which folders you want to create a schedule for, and a wizard will take you through the rest of the process to configure the schedule.

Resolving Conflicts

If you edit a file while you are offline and somebody else on your network also edits the same file, you’ll have a conflict that needs to be resolved. Windows will skip syncing those files and mark them as a conflict, but that’s easy to fix.
Type Sync Center into the Start Menu and press enter.
 
When the Sync Center opens, click on the View sync conflicts link on the left hand side, where you will find a list of all the files that did not sync.

To resolve the conflict, right-click on the file and select View options to resolve from the context menu.

This will give the options to either keep the version that you created while you were away, keep the version on the server that someone else edited while you were away, or keep both versions and rename the one that you created.

Adding Some Security

You can add a layer of security to your offline files by using EFS(Encrypting File System), which is disabled by default and needs to be enabled. Note: This will only encrypt your offline files and not the files on the server.
To enable offline files, type Sync Center into the start menu and press enter. When Sync Center opens click on the Manage offline files link on the left hand side, which will bring up a dialog box. You’ll need to switch to the Encryption tab and then click the Encrypt button.

While the offline files feature isn’t the same thing as Dropbox, it’s definitely a useful feature that’s worth a look if you use networked folders.