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Issue dated - 6th October 2003


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The importance of ‘My Documents’

Tech Forum - Dr. Nitin Paranjpe

It may sound stupid to talk about something as baseline and primitive as the ‘My Documents’ folder. But the issue here is that baseline things, if not used properly, even by IT pros, become a problem. Therefore, even such absolute basics need to be dealt with sometimes. Further, there is more to ‘My Documents’ than just existing as a mapped directory.

Most users store files in an unplanned manner. Users tend to create directories in an ad-hoc manner. Some users create directories with their names, others create directories for various types of documents, some create folders for specific projects/assignments, and so on. This way, user-created files get scattered all across the hard disk, and could lead to lots of problems and disadvantages:

1. Searching for a specific file becomes more and more difficult as the number of files and directories grows.

2. Taking backups becomes tedious because you have to include multiple directories to the list.

3. If you want to change the computer or the hard disk, it is quite possible that you forget to copy a particular directory and lose its data.

4. If multiple users use the same computer, the complexity of file management increases even further. Also multiple users may create directories with same name, adding to the confusion.

5. For compressing, encrypting or checking for viruses, you need to remember every directory that could contain user data.

The solution to all these problems rests within the ‘My Documents’ folder. Now, the first thing we have to understand is that this folder is mapped differently for each user on the same computer. It is also important to understand that most applications, including VS.NET and other tools, consider ‘My Documents’ as the default location for your work.

The actual directory of ‘My Documents’ is by default within your profile directory. Therefore if your name is ‘Sample’, the default path would be:

C:\ Documents and Settings\Sample\My Documents

However, if you already have a directory with your name somewhere, say F:\ nitin, then the directory can be mapped to ‘My Documents’. You do not have to copy the contents from your personal directory to the actual location of ‘My Documents’.

How do you map your own directory to ‘My Documents’?

Here are the steps:

1. Open Explorer.

2. Locate ‘My Documents’ and right-click on it.

3. Choose Properties.

4. The dialog shows the default path of the ‘My Docu ments’ Folder.

5. Browse and choose the path where your files are located.

6. Choose Apply and close.

7. That is all.

Optionally you can move the target directory to the default location.

How to show and auto-expand ‘My Documents’?

Once you have all your work in this folder, you would have to navigate within ‘My Documents’ very often. So how do you simplify this?

The Start Menu – Documents, anyway shows ‘My Documents’. This opens Explorer and shows the contents. However, there is a simpler way.

You can make the ‘My Documents’ in Start Menu automatically expand and show all the directories and subdirectories as a part of the Start Menu itself. This makes navigation quicker.

How do you achieve this?

1. Right-click on any empty area on the Task Bar and choose Properties

2. Choose the Advanced tab. There is a list of check boxes under the heading Start Menu Settings. Scroll down and enable the box – Expand ‘My Documents’.

3. Close the dialog.

4. Now choose Start Menu – Documents – ‘My Documents’.

5. The entire directory structure of ‘My Documents’ now opens up as a standard menu.

6. This is very convenient and fast. The first time you access it, this may take some time to display if you have lots of documents in the ‘My Documents’ window.

Indexing ‘My Documents’ for quicker search

In an earlier article we saw how to include custom directories for indexing and fast searching. The ‘My Documents’ folder is already a part of a system catalog. Therefore, you can directly use the Query The Catalog option of indexing service MMC to perform free text as well as complex query searches on the contents of the ‘My Documents’ folder.

Redirecting ‘My Documents’ to a server!

Now here is a great tip to benefit users and administrators. Store things in the ‘My Documents’ folder was just the start. There is much more to it from an organisational IT management perspective.

As we saw in the past section, it is possible to make any folder map to ‘My Documents’. But that was a folder on the local hard disk. How about a folder on a network computer? Logically possible, right? In fact, this is the recommended method of managing user data securely and centrally in a structured manner.

The pity is that very few administrators know about this and implement this feature. Like so many other great features, this is simply ignored or under-utilised.

Nevertheless, following the TechForum tradition of showing hidden value I will proceed to explain the benefits hoping that at least after reading this article, people start using this great feature.

This is implemented using the Folder Redirection feature of Group Policies of Windows 2000 and above.

Group Policies

Group Policies are a feature of Windows 2000, which provides centralised configuration and control over local computer settings.

Why do we want to redirect ‘My Documents’? Because we want to centralise user data. Normally when we ask users to store their files on a server, they tend to forget and end up storing data locally. Here we do not need to inform users that something has changed. They continue to store data on the ‘My Documents’ folder in the regular Windows Save dialog. Internally the operating system redirects the folder to a server folder.

Of course, users need to be informed about this if they are using Laptops. For laptop users, they will need to decide which files they will need while disconnected from the network and use the file replication/briefcase feature to synchronise the files and carry offline copies.

There are two ways of redirecting ‘My Documents’ from users to a server.

1. Redirect all users to a single folder on the server.

2. Redirect the ‘My Documents’ folder of each user to a user-specific subdirectory of a server directory.

The second option is preferred as it segregates the data for each user.

1. To configure this, start the Active Directory Group Policy MMC snapin.

2. From the tree view on the left side choose the Policy-Name\ User Configuration\ Windows Settings\ Folder Redirection option.

3. Here you can view the ‘My Documents’ folder as a node.

4. Right-click and choose Properties.

5. Here you can choose the type of redirection you want—Basic means single server directory and Advanced means separate directory for each user.

6. The dialog shows how this is managed.

7. You need to specify a server path of a directory for each group of users. The redirection policy works for user groups, not individual users (doing this would be too cumbersome). For each group you have to specify a UNC path (\ \ server\ sharename). Within this directory, for each user within the group, a separate directory will be created and files will be redirected automatically.

Of course there are more options to manage other aspects like the user being taken out of a group or the policy changing. It is beyond the scope of this article, but those are easily understood by referring to the related help files.

Why redirect ‘My Documents’ to a server location?

Here are the benefits:

1. Users no longer have to logon to their desktop computer to get their documents. They can logon to any network machine!

2. For laptop users, the Offline files feature still provides all the files locally and provides automated synchronisation with the server folder.

3. There is a feature called ‘roaming profiles’. Usually this means that the contents of ‘My Documents’ are copied to the roaming profile. When ‘My Documents’ is stored on the server, the only thing the roaming profile needs to copy is the server folder path. This is very fast and efficient.

4. As mentioned earlier, centralised backup now becomes very convenient and reliable. Administrators no longer have to rely on individual users to keep machines on, or cease work on files at the predetermined backup time. Usually users never have the discipline of taking regular backups. In this case, they are not even required to be aware that backups are being taken.

5. You can limit the storage capacity per group of users, preventing them from using excessive space. This is called disk quota.

6. If the local computer fails or the hard disk fails or the OS gets corrupted, data recovery typically becomes a problem. Here the data is always on the server (which typically has more fault tolerance). Therefore organisational data is protected from hardware failure or any other mishaps.

Call to action

I would seriously request all administrators and network designers to look at centralised ‘My Documents’ implementation using Active Directory. It has too many benefits to ignore such a great facility.


I started writing about ‘My Documents’ as a small section in the article. However, as you can see, this has become a full-featured discussion. This only goes to show that even small things that we often take for granted can actually have much more to offer. This is just another example of what I have called "false sense of knowledge" in an earlier article (Caching in .NET).

The bottom line is — Keep learning. Do not assume you know everything.

About the Author:Dr Nitin Paranjape is the Chairman and MD of Maestros (Mediline). He is a consultant with many organisations, covering appropriate technology utilisation, business application of relevant technology, application architecture and audit as well as knowledge transfer. He has authored more than 650 articles on various technology-related subjects. He can be contacted at nitin@mediline.co.in
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