Exploring Windows 7’s New Search Feature (Part 3)

by [Published on 12 Nov. 2009 / Last Updated on 12 Nov. 2009]

Concluding the discussion on the Windows 7 search feature by explaining how to index and search network volumes.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

So far in this article series, I have demonstrated some of the new features associated with Windows 7’s search capabilities, and I have shown you some techniques in order to customize the search index. As you might have noticed though, the search feature has one major shortcoming; there is no obvious way to index the contents of network drives. This is particularly problematic because in corporate environments, users are typically discouraged from saving data on their workstations. Data is almost always stored on a network drive so that it will be centrally accessible, and can easily be backed up.

This does not mean that you cannot search network drives. In fact, if you look at Figure A, you will notice that I have navigated to one of my network drives using Windows Explorer. You will also notice that the search box in the upper right corner of the window gives you the option of searching the drive. If I were to drill down into an individual folder on the file server, I would have the option of searching that specific folder and its subfolders.


Figure A: Windows 7 does allow you to search network volumes

Although Windows 7 does allow you to search network volumes without you having to do anything special, network drives are not indexed. This means that searches of network volumes are inefficient at best. It also means that unless you specifically tell Windows to search a network volume, network paths are not included in searches.

To give you an idea of what I am talking about, take a look at Figure B. I entered a search term at the main Windows search box on the start menu, and the figure shows the search results. Notice at the bottom of the figure that Windows gives you the option of searching again in your libraries or computer, or of performing a custom search.


Figure B: Network volumes are not included in default searches

Clicking the Custom link allows you to refine your search and specify the locations that should be included in the query. By doing so, you are able to search both network volumes and your local computer simultaneously.

Keep in mind that even this technique does not search the contents of files on network volumes. If you look at Figure C, you will notice that you have the option of performing the search again, and including file contents. In other words, if you want to perform a simultaneous search of your local computer and a network volume, and you want to include file contents in your results then you will have to perform three separate searches to get to where you want. Furthermore, the last search will likely be painfully slow because the network volume is not indexed.


Figure C

You have to specifically tell Windows that you want to search the contents of files on network drives.

So the million dollar question is; how do you index a network volume? As you may recall from Part 1, adding a network drive to the search index was not even an option. There is a workaround that you can use to index network volumes, but it is not a viable option for every situation.

The trick to indexing a network location is to make the folders that you want to index available offline. You can do this by simply right clicking on the network folder that you want to index, and choosing the Always Available Offline option from the shortcut menu. There are several reasons why this is not always an option though. For starters, a workstation may not have enough free disk space to cache the desired network folders. Furthermore, not all versions of Windows 7 support offline caching. Even if there are no technical hurdles to offline caching, your corporate security policy or a regulatory requirement may prevent data from being stored on workstations.

Assuming that you are able to cache network files, the indexing process happens automatically. If you look at the left window in Figure D, you can see that offline files have been automatically included in the index locations (offline files are added to the list on a per user basis, so there are two separate listings). The window on the right shows what happens when you click the Modify button. As you can see, there is no granularity for indexing the offline file cache. You must either index all of the offline files or none of them.


Figure D: Offline files are automatically included in the index

Now that I have shown you how to index network drives, I want to wrap things up by showing you one more thing that is new to Windows 7. If you look back at Figure C, you will notice that one of the search options is something called libraries. Windows 7 creates four libraries by default; Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. You also have the option of creating your own custom libraries.

Windows Vista provided each user with a Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos folder, but these folders are different from libraries. In Vista, the Documents, Music, Pictures, and Video folders are just that – folders. A Windows 7 library is not a folder, but rather a collection of folders.

If you look at Figure E, you will see that I have right clicked on the Pictures library, and chosen the Properties command from the shortcut menu. The resulting properties sheet shows all of the folders within the Pictures library. You will also notice in the dialog box that the library has been specifically optimized for pictures, which affects the way that the library contents are displayed. The dialog box also shows you the total size of the library.


Figure E: Libraries are collections of folders

So what does all of this have to do with searching? Well, as you will recall from Part 1, a general search returns all different types of data. A single search might include E-mail messages, documents, and music within the search results. Sometimes though, you may need an easy way of refining the search results.

Suppose for a moment that I wanted to do a quick search for my pictures from my trip to Antarctica. If I performed a general search, the search would likely find the pictures, but it would also return every E-mail message that was ever sent back and forth between me and my travel agent. It would also find documents such as my trip itinerary and insurance forms. If I am just trying to show my pictures to a friend, then I do not need all of that. Instead, I can search the Pictures library. The Pictures library knows which folders contain pictures, and it ignores all other folders.

It is worth noting that libraries are nothing more than collections of folders. If you delete a library, you are not deleting your data because a library does not contain any actual data other than shortcuts to the specified folders. It is also worth noting that libraries can only include folders that have been indexed.

Conclusion

As you can see, the Windows 7 Search feature is very powerful. Sadly though, if you want to index network locations then you will be forced to cache the locations that you want to index. Searches of network volumes are still possible even without indexing those locations, but require a bit more effort than a typical search.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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