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Understanding User State Virtualization Improvements In Windows 7


Standish, England

This weeks guest blogger is Wole Moses, a Sr Product Manager from the Windows Client Product team.

Today I’m going to write about a topic  that’s been coming up quite often during discussions I have with IT Pros regarding their current and future desktop architecture strategy. That topic is user profile and data management. Firstly, to ensure that we’re all on the same page with terminology, let me make sure I clearly define what I’m talking about. A user’s desktop profile consists of the unique desktop and application customizations that a user or their applications make to their pc. This could include a user’s desktop wallpaper choice, what applications  they’ve pinned to their Windows 7 taskbar, and even the position of the recycle bin on their desktop. Applications installed on a PC can also make certain changes to the desktop and Operating System environment. A PC user’s Office toolbar settings, custom dictionaries, or Outlook signatures are example of  unique application settings on their PC. A User’s data is exactly what it sounds like – It’s their documents, pictures, music, videos, but it’s also things like their Internet Explorer Favorites and in some cases data related to applications they’re running.

As we all know there are many challenges IT Pros have in managing end user desktops. One of those many challenges is ensuring that users who need to work from multiple offices or  pcs can access all of their important data and have a consistent and familiar desktop experience. Also what about business continuity? IT Professionals who support mobile users always have to be prepared for the possibility of an end user’s laptop being lost, stolen, or even a hard drive going kaput. Getting the end user quickly back up and running with the same familiar desktop and application settings as well as all of their important files and folders can be the difference between a happy, grateful, and productive end user or a frustrated, unproductive user who may end up losing serious amounts of company and personal data. I don’t know about you but I always prefer the dealing with the first kind of end user!

User State Virtualization is the terminology that we use to describe the set of technologies that enable these end user and IT scenarios. What it basically means is that through centralization of user settings and data, we can start to abstract the actual PC that is being used and make all relevant data and settings available on any authorized PC an end user might be using. The User State Virtualization component technologies (Roaming User Profiles, Folder Redirection, and Offline Files) are not new, they’ve actually been around since Windows 2000, but in Windows Vista and Windows 7 all of these technologies have undergone some pretty significant changes. These changes are all designed to lead to improved user experience, performance, and IT manageability.

So let’s do a quick refresher on each of these technologies and what the role they play as part of User State Virtualization. A Roaming User Profile is user data and settings, stored centrally on a Server which then can follow users as they log on to and log off from different computers. This means that no matter which computer I’m using I can have an identical experience with regard to my desktop, application, and data available to me. Folder Redirection provides the ability to change the target location of predetermined folders found within the user profile to a Server on the network which then gives users a consistent way of saving and accessing their files and folders, from different computers. What this means is that when I save a document to my Documents (or some other redirected folder), it’s actually being saved to a Server in the datacenter so that it is then accessible on another PC Ilog into. Offline Files (also known as Client Side Caching or CSC) makes network files available to an end user on their PC when a network connection to the server is unavailable or slow. Offline files is typically used in conjunction with Folder Redirection. Offline Files are what enable end users to use those folder redirected files when they are disconnected from the corporate network or if they have a poor link or no link to the Server. The original versions of all of these technologies were released almost a decade ago and so it’s fair to say that over the years together with our customers we’ve learned a lot about shortcomings, limitations as well as how and when to best utilize each of these technologies.

Let’s take a quick trip back in time to understand the original  thinking behind the design of these technologies

Back in the late 90s when Roaming User Profiles, Folder Redirection, and Offline Files were developed. The computing world was quite a different place. The primary PC device at that time was the desktop PC. The concepts of laptops and mobile workers was nothing close to being as pervasive as they are today, and PC users primarily worked on their PC in the office. The PC was truly thought of as a company asset and thus was used almost exclusively for work related functions. If a pc user needed to work from a different location in their office, or from a different branch office, whenever possible they simply used the PCs in those locations. If a worker needed to access some document from multiple PCs, the solution was to access the document from a corporate file server, make modifications and then save it back to the file server so that it was available from another PC. At the end of the workday,  the worker would log off of their PC and go home.  In the early days when home internet connectivity  was becoming commonplace, workers began to be given the ability to work from home by using a VPN, which was often used via a home pc. Once connected to the VPN, the workers again would access the corporate file servers where the documents they needed were stored.

Let’s fast forward and come back to the present.  Saying things are very different today is quite an understatement. While desktops haven’t disappeared, the percentage of laptops in use in organizations far exceeds what anyone would have expected in the Windows 2000, or Windows XP release timeframe. This change implicitly means that  today’s workforce also works very differently than they did a decade ago. Today’s workers often use their corporate Wi-Fi networks which previously didn’t even exist  to enable them to work on their laptops in multiple different work locations. When it’s time to go home many workers don’t log off from their laptops. Logging off of the laptop would mean that all of their unsaved documents, all the internet browser windows they have open and whatever else they might be working on would be closed and lost. So instead of logging off, the choice today is to put the laptop in hibernate or sleep mode. When they get home and are ready to work again, they  simply resume their laptops, unlock the laptop (notice this is different from logging on) and things are exactly where they left off. If they need to do some work on the corporate network, they make a VPN connection after unlocking , and connect to the corporate network to get their work done. Finally, todays PC has become a lot more personal. Workers use it not only for business functions but they also do personal web browsing, use it to store pictures, music, and other personal files, and so the laptop has basically become a device and a repository for both business and personal usage.

Why is all of this important? Because the original design of Roaming User Profiles, Offline Files and Folder Redirection doesn’t really account for this newer type of work style. In the original Windows 2000 design of Roaming User Profiles (which was retained through Windows XP), if  a user is configured to user Roaming User Profiles, profile synchronization happens when the user actually logs on or logs off from their pc. As we’ve already described the way many mobile workers prefer to work today, you can already deduce how infrequently that happens. Folder Redirection was originally designed to redirect only a few folders – the folders that were relevant to most PC users of that day. Today there are a lot more categories of information important to PC users. Offline Files assumed that users would primarily be connected to a LAN based network and the network not the PC was the default location where files were to be stored. End users using the PC as the primary location for network based files was not a primary consideration.

Since today’s workers, their work styles, and overall expectations of their PC are vastly different from the workers of yesteryear, it’s probably not unexpected that using yesteryear’s technology may not meet all of their needs.

Starting with Windows Vista, and continuing in Windows 7 there were some pretty significant improvements made in Windows User State Virtualization technologies to try to enable them to meet the needs and work styles of today’s work force. As mentioned earlier these changes focused on improving user experience, manageability and performance.

What I wanted to do in this posting was to provide a level set and to give you background on where these technologies started, the initial thinking and considerations  and the different needs that they have to address today. In subsequent postings, I’ll dive into the details of the improvements in Windows User State Virtualization technologies and what they will mean for users and IT Pros. I would also like to point you to some resources that detail the Windows User State Virtualization Technologies and improvements in Windows 7.

Looking for more information on USV? Check out the brand new screen casts on the Springboard Series on TechNet.

Also, yesterday the MDOP team announced the open beta of the Asset Inventory Service (AIS) 2.0.  For the details on the enhancements and how to sign up check out their post on the MDOP blog and for more information on AIS check out the MDOP area on the Springboard Series site here.


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