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Deploying Windows XP, Managing User State

By Marcin Policht (Send Email)
Posted Dec 30, 2004


Despite the termination of Microsoft's support for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation (hotfix and paid incident support ended on June 30, 2004) and similar changes for Windows NT 4.0 Server at the door (Dec. 31, 2004), these operating systems are still running on many corporate workstations, desktops, and servers. Still planning your NT 4 migration? We look at what's involved in moving to XP. Our series kicks off with a look at the most complex facet of any operating system deployment: managing user state.

Deploying a new operating system is certainly not a trivial task and requires careful planning, testing, and execution. When other equally relevant factors are taken into account, such as the cost of licensing or infrastructure and desktop upgrades, application compatibility issues, and the need for additional training of end users and support teams, one gets a better idea why the expected adoption of Windows XP Professional and Windows Server 2003 has been slower than expected among business customers.

User state consists of several components that make one users's computing environment distinct from another's.

This series of articles will look into some of the challenges associated with deploying Windows XP. Windows XP Professional, introduced well over a year ago, has been widely accepted as considerably more efficient, stable, and secure (especially following release of Service Pack 1) alternative to Windows 98 and ME (for which critical security updates and paid incident support will be available until June 30, 2006).

Our discussions starts with a look at the migration of user state, which is probably most complex factor (next to resolving application compatibility issues) due to its unique, and sometimes difficult to predict, characteristics. Complexity results from the fact that user states can be managed in many ways and are highly application (and, to some degree, operating system) dependent. At the same rate, this is also one of the most critical elements (besides user data) that simplifies user transition from an old to a new system, preventing downtime and an increase in volume of help desk calls.

User state consists of several components that make one users's computing environment distinct from another's. System settings, application settings, and files used are customized on a per-user basis. Migration affects mainly these, which are local to the user's computer (and therefore hardware or operating system replacement puts them at risk of being lost or no longer applicable). The majority are confined to a location on a computer's hard drive known as the user's profile. Starting with Windows 2000, this is the subfolder in the "Documents and Settings" folder (located on the Windows boot drive, which means that, typically, its path is C:\Documents and Settings) named after the user's Windows account name (in earlier version of Windows, this used to be a subfolder of the Profiles folder residing in the Windows installation directory). User profile contains two types of components:

  • Registry Settings, which are, in turn, stored in two .DAT files. The first one is NTUSER.DAT and resides directly in the user's profile root folder (i.e., Documents and Settings\UserName, where UserName is the name of user Windows account). This file consists of entries in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER registry hive, which become part of the user's roaming profile (assuming one has been assigned). The other is USRCLASS.DAT, located in the Documents and Settings\UserName\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Windows and intended for application-specific entries, which are excluded from the roaming profile.

  • Files, which are organized in a fairly elaborate directory structure, including, such subfolders as:

    • Desktop, NetHood, PrintHood, SendTo, Start Menu, or Recent Documents correspond to some of the features of graphical interface of Windows Explorer and contain user-specific settings for each. For example, by adding a shortcut to an application in the SendTo folder under a user's profile, another option is automatically added to the SendTo submenu of the Windows Explorer's File menu. NetHood is intended for shortcuts to users' custom items defined in My Network Places, while PrintHood serves the same role in regard to shortcuts to items in Printer folders. Shortcuts placed in the Start Menu folder complement those available in the All Programs menu for all users.
    • Application Data contains configuration and data files that define users' custom application settings that are part of the roaming profile. For example, it includes the cryptography data needed when using the encryption/decryption features of EFS.
    • Local Settings stores configuration and data files defining a user's custom application settings that are (or can be) excluded from the roaming profile. This applies, for example, to Internet Explorer's Temporary Internet Files or its History entries.
    • My Documents constitutes a default location for data files created by the user. Although by default the My Documents folder becomes part of the roaming profile, it is recommended to implement Folder Redirection to avoid downloading and uploading its content during logons and logoffs, which, in turn, negatively affects the speed of both operations. Folder Redirection is a collection of Active Directory-based Group Policy settings (located under the User Configuration -> Windows Settings -> Folder Redirection node), which replaces the default location of some of the user's profile folders with arbitrarily chosen network-based directories. This means that for such users, there is only a single location of corresponding roaming profile files, regardless of how many computers this user logs on to. This eliminates the need for time-consuming synchronization and makes user-roaming a more pleasant experience. Folder Redirection can be applied to My Documents, My Pictures, Application Data, Desktop, and the Start Menu.
    • Templates contains templates for (mostly legacy) applications, including older versions of Microsoft Office.

>> Managing the Migration Process

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