There is more than one way to connect users to data. By using Links and Group Policy, you can configure data access without having to map drives and speed up logons.
Drive mappings are one of those technologies that seem to never die. Because of the near-universal use of them, ransomware (like CryptoLocker) have been quick to exploit them. There are alternatives to drive mappings. One of the easiest to configure are Windows Explorer Links.
What is the Links folder? How can I use it?
Take a minute and look inside your local profile. One sub-folder that you’ll notice is Links. This folder holds shortcuts. These appear in the Favorites pane in Windows Explorer. This location, by default, holds a shortcut to your Desktop, Downloads, and Recent Places.
The local Links folder with drive connections for network shares
In the screenshot above, you will see the local Links folder highlighted. To the left is the Windows Explorer Favorites. Any item placed in the Links folder will automatically appear in the Favorites pane. As you can see, the Favorites pane contains shortcuts to P, S, and T drives.
Instead of mapping drives with Group Policy Drive Mapping or logon scripts, users receive Link shortcuts. These Links are easier to access because they are always in the top left of Explorer. Because they are UNC based, malware tend to not take advantage of them. Connecting resources this way means never worrying about a drive not mapping!
Redirecting Links with Group Policy
There are two requirements to this approach. First, you much use folder redirection and redirect the Links folder to a network share. By redirecting the Links folder, your users will have access to their shortcuts no matter which machine they use. In a GPO Linked to your users, navigate to User Configuration/Policies/Windows Settings/Folder Redirection. Right-click Links and select Properties.
Using folder redirection to store Links on a network share
Enter your target server and folder (like the screenshot above). Because the Links folder didn’t exist in Windows XP, your older clients will be unable to take advantage of this data access.
Second, you will want to use Group Policy Shortcut Preferences to prepopulate shortcuts. Within your GPO, navigate to User Configuration/Preferences/Windows Settings/Shortcuts and create a new shortcut.
When selecting the shortcut location, steer clear of the Explorer Favorites entry. This entry actually resolves to the current user’s Internet Explorer Favorites folder, not the Windows Explorer (Links) favorite folder.
The Group Policy Preference Explorer Favorites location is for Internet Explorer, not Windows Explorer.
Instead of choosing a built-in Preference entry, select <Specify full path>. For Name, enter a complete path that would place your shortcut in the logged-on user’s Links folder. Because our environment still uses Home Folders for UE-V, I specified U:\Links\Shortcutname.lnk. In the Target path, enter your mapped drive’s UNC path. The screenshot below shows an example of both entries.
Creating a new Linked folder within Windows Explorer
Extending Links and troubleshooting connections
Now that you have created your first Link, you can simply copy the preference and change the name/target for other drive mappings. While your users get acclimated with the new location of network resources, you can begin dialing down your drive mappings.
If you are mapping with scripts, you would want to remove/remark out those sections. If you are mapping with Group Policy Drive Mapping Preferences, you can disable the preference by selecting it and clicking the Red Stop symbol within the tool bar. By disabling the preference, you can revert any changes if needed.
Disabling a preference will shade it out within your GPO.
If your legacy apps still depend on drive mappings to function, you can fix this by editing the application’s shortcut and having it map the drive before launching. This can be done within a batch file, and shortcuts can be deployed with Group Policy Preferences. You can even set your batch file to un-map the drive when the application is closed.
You can also troubleshoot Link connections fairly easily. If a specific Link doesn’t appear for a user, check the Applications Event Log for Group Policy Preference Shortcut errors. These will confirm if the shortcut failed to be created. If all Links are missing, you will also want to ensure that the Links folder was successfully redirected to the network location.
Links can be a more efficient and potentially safer way to connect your users to their data. By using Group Policy Folder Redirection and Preferences, you can create connections one time and have them available on any of your domain computers.