SharePoint Explorer View: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nearly every customer I have spoken to uses the Windows-like Explorer View in SharePoint (available since SharePoint 2003). This view mimics the Windows Explorer View, giving you the illusion of a nice folder-based view of your content, allow for things like Cut & Paste, drag & drop, just the way you do in Windows Explorer, to quickly move around files and folders. Sounds ideal right?
Although it has clear benefits, the downsides of this function might cause more trouble than you expect.

Getting it to work
First of course, you need to get this function working. It’s out of the box you say? Think again. Depending on your environment, getting the Explorer View to work might be a right nightmare. All the necessary parameters on your server and client need to be set just right, which is not the case in many enterprise environments. Plenty of people have already blogged and discussed about this, for example here and here. Microsoft even released a separate whitepaper back in the day on how to get Explorer View to work in SharePoint 2003.

A specific point I recently ran into is the question if the SharePoint 2010 Explorer View works in combination with SSL. The answer is definitely yes, but be sure you have a valid certificate otherwise it will not work. A self-signed certificate for example is not good enough in this case.

The type of browser is also important. First of all, you need to have Internet Explorer for Explorer View to work. It will simply not work in a non-IE browser.
Then, the browser compatibility overview for SharePoint 2010 explains that there are some limitations for 64 bit browsers that require workarounds. Unfortunately it does not explicitly mention (or actually, it’s not mentioned at all) that the SharePoint 2010 “Open in Explorer” function providing integration with Windows Explorer is not available in 64 bit Internet Explorer. The option is then simply greyed out.

ie9-explvw-image

An important point is that Explorer View can apparently only run as a 32 bit process. So in a browser like IE9 x64, which tries to run all processes as 64 bit – both the main browser process itself and the processes happening it the tabs – the Explorer View will not work. In IE10 however, a hybrid approach is used: the main browser process runs as 64 bit, but any process that requires to be run in 32 bit mode will be run as 32 bit. This is good news, because it means you can still use IE10 x64 and still have a fully operational Explorer View – even with the Enhanced Protected Mode (EPM) enabled.

ie10-explvw-image

Moving files with Explorer View
I’ve used Explorer View many times in situation where I want to reorganize some files inside a web site, mainly because in SharePoint 2010 (and 2007) there is no good alternative to move multiple files or folders around quickly (the Manage Content & Structure function for example only allows you to move a single file). This is all fine, as long as things like versioning and metadata aren’t very important for that content. These are some important limitations that a lot of people are not aware off, which could cause unwanted loss of data, without a way to get it back.

Let’s say you open two SharePoint 2010 Explorer View windows, one at the source location and one at the target location. If you use Explorer View that way to move your files across Web Sites, Site Collections or even Web Applications, you could actually be losing data. Depending on the situation, SharePoint is unable to safeguard the old versions or the metadata of the document. You get NO warning about this, and after the move that data is GONE with no way to revert this! It all depends on the distance across which you are moving, existence of the necessary content types, and even the fact if you are doing a Cut & Paste or a Copy & Paste.

This is what you need to keep in mind:

explvw-moving-limitations

Alternatives
Looking for an alternative to the Explorer View because you can’t get it working, or the limitations have too much impact for your environment? Try looking in CodePlex first. There are several good solutions available for building your own file/folder organizer for SharePoint that you can extend yourself. There are also commercial third party tools that offer this kind of functionality, but keep in mind that most of those are administrative tools, while you probably want to offer this functionality to regular end users of you team sites.

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