Why Can't I See My Computer on the Network?

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted November 10, 2006

People who use peer-to-peer networks often face a difficult and annoying problem; when they look in Network Neighborhood or My Network Places on their PCs, they can't see all of the other systems that are part of the workgroup. Unfortunately, this problem is more common than anyone would like to admit. A variety of reasons could cause this to happen, but typically it's associated to an issue with the Computer Browsing Service.

My Network Places, Network Neighborhood, Windows Explorer or a browser window within applications all use the Computer Browsing Service to view the workgroups — and the computers within them — that are on the network. Windows computers that have the "File and Print Sharing for Microsoft Networks" component installed use this service by default. The computer on which you use My Network Places, Network Neighborhood or Windows Explorer is known as the browse client. The computer that provides the list of workgroups or the list of systems within a workgroup is known as a browse server. The list of workgroups and the systems within a specific workgroup is known as the browse list. Got all that? By assigning the browse server role to a specific computer, the Computer Browser service decreases the amount of network traffic and eliminates the need for all computers on the network to maintain a list of all the workgroups and servers on the network.

An automatic election process determines which computer will act as the Master Browse Server. For a given workgroup, there is only one Master Browse Server. On a network that contains different versions of Windows, it's sometimes necessary to configure the computers so that one computer always becomes the Master Browse Server and other computers do not attempt to take over that role. However, the computer designated as the Master Browse Server must remain on at all times. Otherwise, attempts to browse the network from the other computers will result in this error message: The list of servers for this workgroup is not available.


Here's how to designate a Master Browse Server on your network:

Configure the designated Master Browse Server computer as the preferred Master Browse Server.

For a computer running Windows XP/2000:

  • Launch the REGEDIT utility by clicking Start\Run\Regedit.exe.
  • Set the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Browser\Parameters \MaintainServerList registry setting to Yes.

For a computer running Windows 9x:

  • Go to the Control Panel, right-click on Network Neighborhood and select Properties.
  • Change the Browse Master setting to Enabled in the advanced properties of the File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks component.

For all the other computers on the network, configure them to be ineligible to become a browse server.

For a computer running Windows XP/2000:

  • Launch the REGEDIT utility by clicking Start\Run\Regedit.exe.
  • Set the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Browser\Parameters \MaintainServerList registry setting to No.

For a computer running Windows 9x:

  • Go to the Control Panel, right-click on Network Neighborhood and select Properties.
  • Change the Browse Master setting to Disabled in the advanced properties of the File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks component.

Even with the Computer Browser service properly configured, you need to keep in mind that it does not provide real-time updating of the browse list. Messages sent to maintain the browse list are sent periodically, typically every 12 or 15 minutes. This is done to reduce the network resources required for computer browsing. Therefore, the list of computers and workgroups being displayed on your network might not be 100 percent accurate. This makes the Computer Browsing service somewhat problematic and unreliable.

But you have other options.

Adding an LMHOSTS file to your system might help to alleviate some browsing problems. An LMHOSTS file is a static table that resolves a host name to an IP address and assists with remote NetBIOS name resolution on computers that, for one reason or another, cannot respond to NetBIOS name-query broadcasts.

You can find a sample LMHOSTS file in the %SYSTEMROOT%\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC directory in Windows 2000 and Windows XP. The file is named LMHOSTS.SAM. After you make the appropriate changes to the file, it must be saved as LMHOSTS (without the SAM extension) before you can use it. This is important because sometimes Notepad will inadvertently place a TXT extension to the end of a document you've created. That would prevent the file from functioning properly.

The format of the LMHOST file is typically IP address, system name and the extension #PRE. Following any entry in the file with the characters "#PRE" will cause that entry to be preloaded into the name cache for faster resolution. An example of the contents of an LMHOSTS file looks like this:

192.168.1.110 TDS-SERVER #PRE
192.168.1.111 FRONT-DESK #PRE
192.168.1.112 ADMIN#PRE
192.168.1.113 TDS-CAMERA #PRE
192.168.1.114 TDS-WS#PRE
192.168.1.115 HELPDESK#PRE

It is important to remember that since an LMHOSTS file contains static computer-name-to-IP-address mapping, it may cause conflicts if you're also using DHCP to dynamically assign IP addresses on the same network. To avoid problems, assign a static IP address to each system — at least until you upgrade to a client/server environment where you'll no longer need a LMHOSTS file. For more information on the LMHOSTS, please refer to my previous column.

However, you don't necessarily need to see a machine in Network Neighborhood or Windows Explorer to be able to access its shared resources. As long as TCP is correctly configured and the resources can ping each other, all you need to know is the systems IP address and share name.

For example, say I want to connect the computer in the conference room to the PRACNET folder on my desktop PC, all I need is the IP address of my desktop system. You can find that by simply click Start\All Programs\Accessories and select Command Prompt. At the prompt, type IPCONFIG and press Enter. This will list your IP address. Ours is 192.168.10.100.

Now that you've got the IP address of the computer you want to connect to, go back to the conference room computer. Assuming that you've already shared the PRACNET folder, just follow these steps to connect:

  • Open Windows Explorer
  • On the menu at the top click "Tools"
  • Select "Map Network Drive"
  • Assign it a drive letter. It could be any available drive letter, but for our example we'll use "Z."
  • On the folder line enter the IP address and share name; example, \\192.168.10.100\PRACNET
  • Click "OK"

Note: If you're going to use this share on a regular basis, be sure to select the Reconnect at Logon option.

To truly minimize browsing problems, though, the best solution is to upgrade your network to a client/server environment. In a client/server environment, there are numerous ways for PCs to find each other such as inclusion in the Active Directory, NetBIOS broadcast, WINS servers and DNS servers. All of these mechanisms will help to prevent browsing problems and make these headaches a thing of the past. Best of luck!

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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