UNC Path Vs. Mapped Drive

By G.S. Jackson

Users create local area networks between Windows and Linux computers to share files and information easily, without having to transfer the files manually from computer to computer. By using shared folders, a computer allows access to directories to others on the network so that they might read or modify files on that computer. In order to access these files, two common methods exist: Mapping the network directory to a local drive name, or accessing that directory with a Universal Naming Convention (UNC) path.

UNC Paths

The Uniform Naming Convention (UNC) Path defines the location of a resource on a network. Working on a network level, rather than an operating system level, the UNC exists to have a global standard for computers on a network to communicate with each other. The UNC designation is specific, and applies to all operating systems, even though particular operating systems have their own network mapping protocols.

Mapped Drives

Mapped drives, however, are specific to certain computers. Windows mapped drives represent shared drives on the network, but map them to internal Windows drives denoted by a letter or directory name. This method offers users an easier way to connect to shared drives, because the system will remember the mapping and load it for the user. Users can change mapped drives, where UNC paths usually do not. In fact, users are in control of the mapping designations, meaning mapped drives can change day to day and in unknown ways.

Mapped Drive Locality Versus UNC Path Regularity

System administrators would often like to implement UC paths throughout a network because of these reasons. Users modifying mapped drives can cause problems in data flow throughout a network. Users may not know what drive maps to what shared resource. Furthermore, a resource that becomes unavailable can cause a computer to hang should a user map a drive to it. The drive seeks a resource that may have moved, and thus the computer spends time searching for it without any idea as to where to look.

Underlying Network

A bigger problem between UNC and Mapping drives is that mapped drives do not reflect the underlying network structure. An administrator can change the entire layout of a network, or the layout might be modified due to updates or repairs so as to make mapped drives impossible to maintain. The alternative to mapped drives is to maintain a list of computers on the network, and teach users how to use UNC. For example, a user with a list of resources on the network can use the UNC path of a network, such as "\\computer1\shared_folder" rather than mapping the drive. This way, the user always accesses the correct resource.