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Microsoft Releases Work Folders for Windows 7

Microsoft has released Work Folders for Windows 7, which broadens file sharing options for organizations.

The release of Work Folders for Windows 7 for 32-bit and 64-bit machines dates back to April 23, and it was announced late last month in a Microsoft storage team blog post. However, the announcement maybe flew under the radar. It was reannounced today. Previously, the Work Folders feature was only supported for Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 clients, where it's a built-in feature of those operating systems.

The Work Folders for Windows 7 announcement may be of note for organizations looking to support bring-your-own-device scenarios for accessing work data. Those organizations may be more likely to have Windows 7 clients deployed, rather than Windows 8.1 clients. Oddly, the Work Folders feature isn't supported for Windows 8 clients.

The Work Folders feature was actually introduced almost a year ago as a sub-server role for Windows Server 2012 R2 or Windows Storage Server 2012 R2. It is one of a few ways that Microsoft supports file sharing via data synchronization. Microsoft's other data-sync options include OneDrive (for consumers), OneDrive for Business, and a combination of the Offline Files plus Folder Redirection features, according to an explanation by Fabian Uhse, a Microsoft program manager for Work Folders.

The OneDrive for Business approach is a file synchronization solution for data stored on SharePoint. In contrast, Work Folders is a Windows Server 2012 R2 feature that syncs data from the file server, Uhse explained.

As for using the Offline Files plus Folder Redirection features to sync data, it's considered to be a "predecessor" to the Work Folders feature, according to Uhse. Work Folders is perhaps a little simpler to use in that it doesn't require setting up a virtual private network to sync the data, he explained.

Work Folders for Windows 7 only works with the Enterprise, Professional and Ultimate editions of that OS. The user experience of Work Folders on Windows 7 machines is close to that on Windows 8.1 clients, but there are a few differences. First, the Windows 7 machines must be domain joined to use the Work Folders feature. Second, Windows 7 devices using Work Folders can't use the same lockscreen and password policies that are enforced on Windows 8.1 machines. The reason for that disparity is that Windows 7 doesn't support the Exchange ActiveSync Policy Engine synchronization feature that's part of the Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and Windows RT OSes. For that reason, Microsoft recommends using Group Policy to manage the passwords for Windows 7 domain-joined machines that tap Work Folders, as described in its announcement. Also not supported in Work Folders for Windows 7 clients is the "selective wipe" feature, which is a Windows 8.1 feature.

Notifications also appear differently on Windows 7 machines using Work Folders. Microsoft shows the sync status in the task bar on Windows 7 machines. In contrast, Windows 8.1 machines display the sync status through the File Explorer status bar, as well as the Action Center.

Microsoft took almost seven months to roll out the new Work Folders for Windows 7 feature. The company began work on it soon after it released Windows Server 2012 R2 back in mid-October.

Microsoft lists a bunch of Work Folders resources at this blog post. Uhse recommends setting up an evaluation server using the Work Folders role, along with two clients for testing purposes. He says it takes a few minutes to establish the synchronization.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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