What Is a Windows Domain and Why Are They Useful?

What Is a Windows Domain and Why Are They Useful?

When you're using a company computer, there's a good chance that computer is joined to a Windows domain. But what are domains, and how are they useful for a company?

Today, we'll look at how domains work and how they make managing your network a lot easier.

What Is a Windows Domain?

Simply put, a Windows domain is a group of networked computers that are controlled by (at least) one central machine. One or more servers, known as domain controllers, are set up to manage the other machines.

Windows computers aren't part of a domain when they come out of the box. IT staff must join new computers to a domain. Once that's done, they can control them much more easily than they could without.

While Windows domains obviously work best with a group of Windows machines, you can join a Mac to a domain. It may have some compatibility issues, however, and not all features are available on macOS.

Features of a Domain

A Windows domain has several vital features for business use.

Active Directory: User Management

Microsoft's Active Directory is a directory program for managing users in a domain.

On a home computer, you sign in with a local account and the computer manages your login. This is why if you lose the password for your home computer, it's difficult to log back in.

Using Active Directory on a domain is totally different. Instead of local logins, the domain controller is in charge of managing a list of users and their credentials. Any user on a domain can log into any domain computer with their credentials as long as that computer is communicating with the domain controller.

Additionally, Active Directory provides the network administrators with flexible options for user management. If someone forgets their password, you can reset it in a few clicks in Active Directory. This also allows IT staff to quickly add new users, or disable accounts when an employee separates from the company.

Another feature of Active Directory is the ability to add users into groups. In large companies, keeping track of permissions for every user individually would be impossible. Thus, the administrators can add employees into groups, such as Users, Executives, and Guests. They can then apply blanket permissions for these groups, which is much easier to manage.

Group Policy: Control Settings

On a non-domain computer, the user is in charge of managing the settings. Of course, in a business environment, this is rarely acceptable. Thus, administrators often disable access to settings on domain computers.

That's where Group Policy, a feature of Professional versions of Windows, comes in. IT administrators can create policies that apply to all computers on the domain. Some examples of this include:

  • Block access to administrative tools like the Command Prompt.
  • Redirect a local folder (like My Documents) to a folder on a server instead.
  • Prevent the user from changing internet connection options.
  • Automatically map printers to the computer.
  • Require users to change their passwords at a given interval.

This makes managing dozens or hundreds of computers much easier. Having to change settings on every computer each time you make a change would be a nightmare.

Is My Computer on a Domain?

It's easy to check if your PC is on a domain and the name of the domain if so.

First, open the Start Menu and type Control Panel to open that utility. Click the System entry here, and you'll see a page with information about your PC. Under the Computer name, domain, and workgroup settings header, you'll either see Workgroup or Domain.

The name of your current workgroup or domain will appear as well. If you're using your computer in a business setting and you see the default WORKGROUP in all caps, you should let your IT staff know. Your computer likely should be joined to a domain, and they'll need to do that for you.

Workgroup vs. Domain

Not every business environment is on a domain. For small businesses with only a few employees a domain isn't always necessary. IT staff can sometimes manage the small number of computers manually. Further, a domain requires a virtual or physical server, which can be expensive for a small business.

The Workgroup feature in Windows is pretty basic but it does allow computers on the same network to share files. Beyond this, tools like Dropbox can assist with file sharing in place of a server.

Workgroups aren't scalable; as a company grows, a domain becomes much more important to implement.

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