Master Browser
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Win. Features

Windows 10 and Master Browser

Or why my "Network neighbourhood" is permanently broken...

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, this is based on my experiences with small workgroup networks, opinions and the information I have been able to pick up from the web. If you have any kind of administrative "domain" then this information is probably irrelevant to you.

Further disclaimer: As of April 2021 this information may be out of date. I have not specifically tested for master browser stability but the office NAS has been visible consistently for a significant time.

It is entirely possible that the Windows 10 issue has been patched. 
Alternatively it may be that the affected versions of SMB are now disabled by default so computers that would previously have disrupted the network now do not join it at all unless specifically enabled.

The networks in question have grown ad-hoc, and at this time do not have an Active Directory service. Name resolution is dependant on the basic name resolution built into Windows Networking.

The problem is that every so often the list of machines recognised will shrink or vanish. 

Master Browser 

Nothing to do with web browsers. The Master Browser is one computer in a Windows "workgroup" network which maintains a list of the other computers on the network, which it supplies on demand. This avoids the need for all computers to broadcast "I'm here" messages in order to build a list.

The Master Browser is set automatically by a hidden "election" process, which is meant to ensure that in a mixed environment the computer selected is a powerful one able to perform the task.

Oddly enough the process of connecting to a network share by name does not appear to require a working Master Browser, so there appears to be a second more reliable resolution service.

Samba

If you are running a Samba server you may have access to its configuration file in which case you can set its priority. This can be used to ensure it is always selected or never selected.

Windows client machines

Given a mix of Windows machines the process appears to favor the newest version of Windows, so XP machines aren't picked if Vista is available, Vista isn't picked if 7 is available etc.

The Windows 10 problem

The problem with Windows 10 is it just does not appear to maintain a correct list of machines, so if a Windows 10 machine becomes Master Browser then it will either report that it is the only machine on the network or not report at all.

If the Windows 10 machine is shut down and the Master Browser "baton" is passed to a Windows 7 machine then the list comes back up again.

Fixing the Windows 10 Master Browser problem 

Preventing Windows 10 machines from becoming Master Browser by setting the registry

The following "hack" requires that there is at least one non-Windows 10 machine available to be the Master Browser.

It also requires a configuration change on EVERY Windows 10 machine.

The change may also need to be redone at times as some maintenance operations are known to reset it.

The configuration change may need to be undone at some future date when the older machine is upgraded or disposed of.

On each Windows 10 machine locate the "MaintainServerList" registry key at:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet
\Services\Browser\Parameters

It is usually set to "Auto". Valid values are "On, Auto, Off".

Set it to "Off".

This way the Windows 10 machines cannot be selected.

Preventing Windows 10 machines from becoming Master Browser by forcing control to a NAS device

This requires NO configuration changes, but does require an always-on server device that is capable of winning the Master Browser election. You simply shut down other computers till the desired machine becomes Master.

Some routers can do this, and one solution was to add a USB drive to a router to make a basic server, then shut down all the client computers so the router became master. So long as the router runs uninterrupted the network functions fine. 

Some Linkstation NAS boxes can be Master. I believe the LSWVL and LS421DE models can not, and this may be a deliberate policy on the part of Buffalo.

Linksys NSLU2

If you have a NSLU2 lying around try adding it to your network with no attached disk. In my experience it used to quickly establish itself as Master Browser, taking precedence over Windows 10 desktop. Recently, late 2019, that has stopped working and I have relied on Windows 7 machines taking the role. The network still appears more stable with a NSLU2 present though.

Identifying the Master Browser

The only way I know of is to use the "nbtstat" command with the "-a" (lower case) switch and machine name ("nbtstat -a <name>"). This interrogates the machine's name table.

The Master returns a string "☺☻__MSBROWSE__☻".

Unfortunately the command has to be run on each machine in turn.

Other issues with the Master Browser process

Historically I believe that firewalls could interfere with the process, as the vanishing network problem was seen on a 98/XP network long before the present issue. The old problem appeared to coincide with the introduction of "firewall" software. I never diagnosed the issue but even at the time I suspected the problem was caused by machines with no shares having their firewalls set to outbound only and being unable to accept inbound traffic.