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What type of Windows user profile should you use?

For every user that logs onto a Windows system, there is a corresponding user profile that stores the user's personal settings. Desktop operating systems such as Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 use local profiles by default, but Microsoft also allows roaming profiles or mandatory profiles. So what types of Windows user profiles should your organization be using? You need to know the differences between each type of profile so you’ll know when each profile should be used.

What are Windows user profiles?

A user profile is really nothing more than a folder containing all of a user's personal files and settings. The default profile location for Windows 7 user profiles is C:\Users. Users have their own individual profiles, which contain things like desktop icons, application settings, Internet Explorer favorites and the user's documents.

Local profiles

Local profiles are Windows user profiles that are stored directly on the desktop computer or laptop. The main advantage to using a local profile is that the profile is accessible even when the computer is disconnected from the network. Users can work on their devices, then sync up with corporate systems later.

Another advantage is that since the profile is stored locally, network latency is not a problem when retrieving profile settings.

Although Windows is designed to use local profiles by default, some disadvantages to using them exist. First, local profiles are machine-specific. If a user logs on to another computer, his settings and documents will not be available.

Another serious issue is that users almost never back up their desktop computers. Windows user profiles can contain a lot of data, and if a desktop hard drive fails, any data that is stored within local profiles on that machine is lost.

Local profiles are best suited for use on laptops because mobile users sometimes need to work even when they are not connected to the enterprise network. Just make sure that users know they are responsible for backing up their own machines.

Roaming profiles

Windows roaming profiles are similar to local profiles in that they store user settings and data. The difference is that roaming profiles are stored on a network server rather than on individual devices. No matter which desktop or laptop a user logs onto, the user's profile will follow him.

When a user logs onto the network, his profile is copied from the network server to the user's desktop. When the user logs off of his computer, the profile (including any changes that the user might have made) is copied back to the server.

A major drawback of roaming profiles is that they can increase network latency. Microsoft user profiles can become very large as the user accumulates data. I have seen real-world cases of profiles exceeding 30 GB in size. This is a problem because the profile must be copied to the user's desktop when he logs in, which makes for some very long login times. The same problem also applies to the logoff process since the profile must then be copied back to the network.

The solution to this problem is to use folder redirection with roaming profiles. Folder redirection allows key folders (such as the Documents folder) to be permanently stored on a file server. Doing so eliminates the need for the folder to be copied as a part of the logon and logoff processes. Although the profile itself is still copied at each logon and logoff, redirected folders are not copied.

Roaming profiles are the preferred profile type for most networks. They allow users to access their profiles from any desktop on the network, and the profile data is easy to back up because it is centrally located.

Mandatory profiles

Mandatory profiles are used when employees are not permitted to customize their profiles (such as changing the Windows wallpaper or disabling a screensaver). They are almost identical to roaming profiles, but with one big exception. Like roaming profiles, mandatory profiles are stored on a network server and are copied to the user's desktop upon logon. The difference is that when the user logs off, mandatory profiles are not copied back to the server. This prevents the user from making any changes to the profile.

Before you decide on a Windows user profile type, consider your requirements for security, availability, resiliency and performance. For most organizations, roaming profiles are the most appropriate choice.

This was first published in July 2012

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