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Replicating the functionality of SteadyState in Windows 7

Although SteadyState doesn't work in Windows 7, Microsoft did create a method for imitating certain aspects of the feature in its latest desktop OS. But is that good enough?

Back in the Windows XP days, Microsoft created Windows SteadyState, a tool that lets administrators take a snapshot...

of a system configuration and restore it quickly. This was -- and still is -- useful in environments such as schools or libraries where computers are in public use and need to be reverted to an original set of behaviors on a moment's notice. However, SteadyState doesn't work in Windows 7. Luckily, though, there are several ways to imitate the tool's functionalities in Microsoft's newest operating system.

If you've worked with snapshots in a virtual machine environment, then you have an idea of how SteadyState was meant to be used. Everything from the state of the desktop to the files on disk can be reset automatically, and it can be done almost entirely hands off.

SteadyState did have a few drawbacks. For example, it worked only with 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista. With Vista gradually appearing in more and more 64-bit incarnations -- as a complement to the greater number of machines that ship with more than 4 GB of RAM -- this was bound to become a limitation.

SteadyState has been discontinued as of the end of 2010. In addition, there's nothing like SteadyState in Windows 7, which rolled a slew of functionality into a single, managed package, making it possible to accomplish a lot in a highly automated way.

 Microsoft said that it didn't update SteadyState for Windows 7 because the tool was developed "when the Windows management features were less robust and mature than they are today." Instead, the company released Creating a Steady State by Using Microsoft Technologies, a white paper that explains how to replicate many of the tool's behaviors with mandatory user profiles and Group Policy Objects (GPOs).

But users and admins are unhappy with this development because they have to replace single tool with many different things.

During the Windows 7 beta test period, a tool named Guest Mode was demonstrated. It would have covered a lot of SteadyState's territory, including disk protection, the single biggest missing feature not adequately replicated via any of Microsoft's suggestions. Guest Mode, however, didn't make it into the final version of Windows 7; it was inexplicably removed. Maybe Microsoft felt it was the sort of thing best provided as part of an administrator's toolkit instead of a home-level feature. Regardless, it's an annoying omission.

To be fair, the Microsoft document does walk admins through some of the most crucial things that may come up when dealing with a PC formerly secured with SteadyState.

The following may be the most important, and they provide the lion's share of the functionality:

 

  1. It's possible to create a limited user profile that is automatically reset when the user logs off so that any documents or profile changes are automatically erased. This can be done with a mandatory user profile, preferably one that is a limited user account.
  2. Automatically reverting the system to the contents of a disk image can be done with the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010. Microsoft recommends this be done nightly. (An admin may also want to make it possible to revert on demand if a system is contaminated by malware or otherwise damaged.)

Microsoft has also published the following two documents on how to replicate SteadyState in Windows 7:

  1. A list of GPO settings modified by SteadyState, broken down by subject, e.g., how to disable specific behaviors like running the Task Manager or the ability to change a password.
  2. A reference spreadsheet that provides quick access to GPOs described in the previous document.

Again, what's most lacking is a way to apply the needed changes in one go rather than through dozens of separate changes. Managing the GPO settings seems to be the most time-consuming process, since you have to evaluate each one and see whether it applies to the scenario in question, and then implement it. On the plus side, an admin may only have to do this once or twice, since the resulting changes can then be added to a machine image and pushed out via the Deployment Toolkit.

Those who bemoan the loss of the disk protection feature and who want it back can look into a couple of commercial products that replicate the same behaviors. One is Deep Freeze from Faronics; another is Comodo Time Machine.

On the whole, Microsoft should bring back SteadyState -- or a properly equivalent product -- for Windows 7 to satisfy admins who remain dismayed about this decision.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about personal computing and IT for over 15 years for a variety of publications, including (among others) Windows Magazine, InformationWeek and the TechTarget family of sites.


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