Windows User Profiles…The Mysteries Untold – Part 1

Happy New Year Everyone…This is my first blog post of 2017. Woo Hoo!!  As always, I love to blog about questions from the field.  This one came from a customer testing their new Virtual Desktop Infrustrure (VDI) on Nutanix and had 1 out of 50 users profiles be corrupt. He asked why did this happen and how can I avoid this in the future. Now, I would say that 1 corrupt profile out of 50 is fine during a test, but let understand why it happens. This topic is especially important to understand because directly relates to VDI and your end-user experience in VDI.

Windows User Profiles

What is a Windows User Profile? It not just your desktop 🙂

Let’s do a quick primer…

Windows creates a user profile the first time that a user logs onto a physical computer or VDI session. At subsequent logons, the system loads the user’s profile, and then other system components configure the user’s environment according to the information in the profile.

A user profile consists of the following elements:

  • A registry hive. The registry hive is the file NTuser.dat. The hive is loaded by the system at user logon, and it is mapped to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER registry key. The user’s registry hive maintains the user’s registry-based preferences and configuration.
  • A set of profile folders stored in the file system. User-profile files are stored in the Profiles directory, on a folder per-user basis. The user-profile folder is a container for applications and other system components to populate with sub-folders and per-user data such as documents and configuration files. Windows Explorer uses the user-profile folders extensively for such items as the user’s Desktop, Start menu and Documents folder.

Type of User Profiles

  • Mandatory profiles:
    • Typically one pre-configured profile for many users.
    • Although during a session changes can be made, they are discarded. When the user logs on the next time, the locally cached copy of the mandatory profile is reset (replaced with the network copy).
    • The path to the mandatory profile needs to be assigned to users
    • Useful mainly for kiosk systems.
  • Local profiles:
    • One profile per user per machine.
    • No dependency on the network.
    • Since the profile is available locally, logons are very fast.
    • No configuration is necessary, local profiles are assigned to users automatically.
    • Backing up local profiles is often a challenge because the profiles are distributed across many machines with potentially slow and/or only intermittent network connectivity.
    • Another difficulty is how to transfer local profiles between computers, which becomes necessary when machines are replaced.
    • Useful for users who do not switch computers often or for computers without permanent network connectivity, like laptops. In VDI environments local profiles should not be used since users are directed to an arbitrary (the least loaded) server when they launch a new session.
  • Roaming profiles:
    • One profile per user.
    • The master copy of the profile is stored on a file server. During logon, it is copied to the local machine, which may slow down logons considerably depending on profile size and network speed.
    • During log off, changed files are copied back to the master copy on the file server. Since a user’s registry hive is stored in a single file, this approach creates the “last writer wins” problem.
    • The path to the roaming profile needs to be assigned to users.
    • Useful for most setups where local profiles cannot be used.
  • Temporary User Profiles:
    • A temporary profile is issued each time that an error condition prevents the user’s profile from loading. Temporary profiles are deleted at the end of each session, and changes made by the user to desktop settings and files are lost when the user logs off.

Windows User Profiles

Windows User Profiles – The Reality

Ok, now let me paint a picture….A user calls the help desk to report a strange issue on an application running on their VDI Desktop. What does the help desk technician do? Analyze the root cause of the problem? Probably not. Most likely, the user’s profile will be deleted and the problem will have gone away. Happy ending? Not at all!

Deleting entire user profiles because of malfunctions caused by small data inconsistencies reveals a great deal of helplessness. While the user can work with the faulting application again, the user has lost thousands of personal settings configured both implicitly and explicitly. The help desk technician, on the other hand, has learned nothing from the case, except a brute force way of closing a call. The next time a user rings with a weird problem the technician will be all the more eager to repeat the procedure.

Deleting is cheap. Who is to blame?  Nobody, really. Given the prehistoric user profile design Windows still uses in its latest incarnations, the help desk technician has no other choice but to delete the profile. Trying to get to the root cause is way too difficult and time-consuming a task to perform routinely several times a day. It is so much cheaper to just delete everything and have the user start from scratch.
Why is it like this? Finding a “Needle in a Haystack” is expensive. User profiles are a mess, a chaotic agglomeration of data. Applications can write what they want, where they want, in what way they want into the profile. Among the piles of data junk each Windows user profile stores, there are, however, quite a few hidden gems: the settings a user actually has configured. That is the stuff users care about.

Take your favorite web browser, for example. It comes with hundreds or thousands of factory presets, most of which you could not care about less. But I bet there are a few tweaks in your configuration you would not like to live without. Unfortunately, those settings dear to your heart are buried among all the other default stuff.

Configuration Craziness with some Applications

And it gets worse. Not only are the valuable settings from individual applications intermingled with worthless data, some applications store their configuration all over the place, effectively creating a mix of settings from multiple programs. This makes it virtually impossible to easily identify and extract a single program’s settings. By the way, Microsoft is especially good at this mixing business. Try to identify all storage locations for (Internet) Explorer settings on your own. LOL 😉

Untangling the Knot – How?

The inadequacies of Windows user profiles have led to the development of quite a few profile management products and technologies.  My next post will dive into Best Practices and some of the solutions that help solve this problem.
Finally, at the beginning of the post I mentioned that this series was inspired by a customer in the field. Well, in the end, the problem was a bad registry setting loaded by the NTUSER.DAT, by a third-party application. ;(

Until next time,  Rob.

Surface 3 – First Impressions…

Hi everyone….to start, I don’t normally write product reviews, but had to share my thoughts and experiences on the new Surface 3 (not the existing Surface Pro 3, which was released last year) as I love it as my new mobile computing device. This surface was released during the week of Microsoft Ignite 2015 (May 4th-8th) of which I received my that week have had 2 months to play with it.
Surface 3

What is the Surface 3?

In short, the Surface 3 is a thinner, lighter, smaller and cheaper version of the Surface Pro 3. It has a 10.8-inch screen and weighs just under 2 pounds with the keyboard attached, It’s a little awkward on your lap and you’d struggle to recommend it to a friend without first pointing out how ‘different’ it is. It’s complicated.

That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but the Surface 3 is more than the sum of its parts. Its Intel Atom processor is competent rather than fast and its battery is decent and it’s versatile and – like a good camera – it makes you want to use it.  And, unlike the Surface RT it replaces, it runs on a proper version of Windows, so it’s actually useful.

Microsoft Surface 3 specs

  • Screen size: 10.8 inches
  • Screen type: ClearType Full HD Plus Display
  • Resolution: 1920 x 1280
  • Pixel density: 210 ppi
  • SoC: Intel Atom x7-Z8700 – Type Quad-core – Speed 1.6GHz (with Intel Burst up to 2.4GHz)
  • GPU: Intel Gen 8
  • RAM: 2GB / 4GB (depending on model)
  • Storage: 64GB / 128GB (depending on model)
  • Expansion: micro SD
  • Camera: 8MP autofocus
  • Flash: None
  • Front-facer: 3.5MP
  • Battery: 10 hours by Microsoft testing (Personal testing 6-8 hours)
  • OS: Windows 8.1 (with Windows 10 upgrade coming July 29)
  • Bands: LTE version not due until June 2015
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
  • WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Sensors: Ambient light sensor / proximity sensor / accelerometer / gyroscope / magnetometer
  • Build Magnesium alloy with ceramic finish
    Size 267 x 187 x 8.7mm / 622g
  • Price $499/$599

The one I have reviewed in this blog post is the 2GB/64GB Model

Design

In practice the Surface 3 is just under a half pound lighter than the Pro. This means the Surface 3 feels more like a genuine tablet than the Surface 3 Pro, and it’s an important difference. You’ll want to use the Surface 3 more because it’s lighter, easier to carry and less cumbersome when out and about.

It’s also thinner – 8.7mm vs 9.1mm – but the more important point is the Surface 3 is fanless. Intel’s Atom processors aren’t speed demons, but they’re efficient enough that they run happily without additional cooling. It’s another way the Surface 3 is a better tablet, as you’ll never be interrupted by the unwelcoming fan turning on.

The Surface 3’s also a vastly better hybrid than the ill-conceived Surface RT line ever was. That’s mostly down to the fact it runs a full, unlimited version of Windows 8.1 with Windows 10 coming on June 29, 2015 as a free upgrade.

While smaller, the Surface 3 retains the same 3:2 aspect introduced for the Pro 3. It’s a good compromise between the widescreen 16:9 of previous Surface tablets and the 4:3 aspect of an iPad. It works just as well in portrait as in landscape, or in desktop and tablet modes.

Use it on a table, though, and the Surface 3 feels little different from an ordinary laptop. You can magnetically clip the keyboard to the bottom of the screen to create a more comfortable typing angle, but it feels better for typing when left flat on a hard surface – the angle works best on your lap.
Surface 3
The versatility of the design means you can enjoy using the Surface 3 in settings where laptops are awkward, and you can even use the on-screen keyboard effectively with the Surface 3 at its shallowest angle. Surface 3
Connectivity is pretty good, considering its size and power.The Surface 3 has a full-size USB port, a Mini DisplayPort output and Micro USB expansion, which is sufficient when paired with the fast AC Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. I have a Dell Mini DisplayPort Adapter that came with my work laptop and it works fine with it.

Everything you really need is here and it even has two cameras. You get an 8-megapixel camera at the rear and 3.5-megapixel on the front. They’re both adequate for what you’ll need from a tablet.

Keyboard and Trackpad

The keyboard is a separate purchase….$130 bucks…Ouch…but the keyboard is a decent effort given the constraints of the hybrid design and the smaller screen. In fact, the keys are the same size as those on the Surface Pro 3, so there’s no meaningful compromise there. They’re comfortable to type on and have a not unpleasant sharp, precise action. We’re not talking ThinkPad quality here, but they’ll do.

The touchpad, however, is very small and awkward. It’s hard to be precise on such a small pad, and using gestures to scroll up and down pages is hit and miss – Google Chrome was particularly bad for some reason.
Surface3-keyboard Surface 3But the large, responsive touchscreen makes up for this. It’s often easier to employ it to do some actions, and the nature of the web these days means many websites and web apps are more touch friendly than in the past.

If there’s a serious concern about the keyboard, it’s the durability. The keys and touchpad seem fine, but the soft velour-like material around the palm rests scuffs and wears easily.

It’s a cosmetic rather than a functional issue, but the idea that your expensive keyboard accessory could look tatty and worn after a year or so is kind of annoying.

Surface MouseSurface 3

I purchased this to carry around with my Surface tablet. My reasoning was this: “it’s small, it lays flat for transport, and the Surface edition is Bluetooth, so this will be a great fit.”.  But like anything there are some good and bad:

PROS:

  • Bluetooth – no wires, no dongle – this is only for the more expensive Surface addition.
  • Scroll touch strip – with with optional haptic feedback
  • Stylish look-and-feel
  • Folds flat – it’s essentially full size and full profile mouse but folds flat for travel or storage.
  • Adjustable movement of the scroll – via software, it can be adjusted precise enough for drawing and small on-screen movements.
  • BlueTrack Technology – works on almost any surface
    Easily adjustable to left or right hand.

CONS:

  • Cost – Expensive – $60 bucks on Amazon – but got mine on Ebay for $25 used
  • The middle touch strip (or click/scroll) on this mouse occasionally stops working.
  • No horizontal scrolling on middle touch strip.
  • Some connection issues – it sometimes looses the connection to my Surface 3

Overall, the mouse is very light and I like that it can fold flat when not in use, which is very convenient for travel, but I really don’t like the price – $60 – really? With all that said, however, if you want something that is really light, portable, and sleek looking, this mouse is for you.

Surface Pen
Surface 3

Another expensive option is the Surface Pen…$50 bucks

OneNote is the best applications as I an a avid note taker and it works great. The note taking and the Surface Pen remains excellent. It’s exactly the same as that of the Surface Pro 3. The pressure sensitivity works wonderfully in sketching and painting apps such as Fresh Paint, and functions just as effectively for handwriting and inking applications. It’s comfy to hold, with the matte finish providing the right amount of grip.
While some applications—like OneNote support the digital inking capabilities of Surface Pen, many do not. But you can still use Pen to handwrite. For example, you could handwrite a web address in the IE address bar by selecting it with the Pen tip, activating the Touch Keyboard (using the icon in the taskbar) and then handwriting keyboard layout. Then, just write the address you want.

Office 2016 Preview on Surface 3

Surface 3
Also around Ignite 2015, Microsoft released the Office 2013 consumer preview.  I decided to give it a spin as I am an avid Outlook user. I downloaded a 32-bit version of the Office 2016 though my work Office 365 subscription and replacing the version of Office 2013 installed on my test machine. To install, just head to your Office 365 My Account page, then click Language and install options. From there, click additional install options. In the drop-down menu, select to install either the 32-bit or 64-bit version of the Office 2016 Preview.

Once the software’s installed, you’ll need to enter the email address matched to your Office 365 subscription the first time you launch an Office application. This registers and activates Office.

If you’re not an Office 365 subscriber, the process is just as easy . Simply head to the Office 2016 Preview page and download the executable for either the 32-bit or 64-bit version of Office. Once it’s downloaded, click the program icon to begin the installation process.

When you’re prompted to enter the email address associated with your Office subscription, press the small blue “Enter a product key” link underneath the field instead. Then use the following product key:
NKGG6-WBPCC-HXWMY-6DQGJ-CPQVG (from Office 2015 Preview Page)

That’s it! Poke around, try all the new stuff, and be sure to send Microsoft feedback using the smiley-face icon in the upper-right corner. Microsoft wants to hear whenever you stumble across either pain points or frictionless experiences. That’s what previews are for, after all.

Microsoft is using its click-to-run technology (based on App-V) to stream and install Office in the background, downloading preview copies of Access 2016, Excel 2016, OneNote 2016, Outlook 2016, PowerPoint 2016, Publisher 2016, and Word 2016. The preview expires in 180 days. The installation was simple and painless.Remember, this is a preview and it is expected to be a little buggy.

The most visible change is that Office applications each now have their own distinctive colors — blue for Word, green for Excel and red for PowerPoint, with Outlook and Visio lighter shades of blue. The color is most noticeable in the Ribbon across the top of the program windows and in the title bar. You can always go back to the white of the previous version of Office if you want. As for me, there’s little enough color in one’s daily life, so I find the bright new colors a welcome addition

Changes to Outlook (my most used and favorite app)

The noticeable changes in Outlook are a few tweaks IMO. For example, when you’re composing an email and click Insert –>Attach File, you’ll see a list of all the recent files that you’ve used in Office. Given that there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll be inserting a file you’ve been recently working on, I found this a time-saver.
send Surface 3
Outlook will also adjust its interface depending on the size of the window in which you run it. It normally has a three-pane view: folders in the left pane, list of emails in the middle pane and the email text in the right pane. However, when you run Outlook in a small window, it now shrinks to either a two-pane view or a one-pane view, depending on the window size, which works great on the Surface 3 at different viewing angles.
outlook1 Surface 3 outlook2 Surface 3

Office Overall
As is so often the case with Office, the new version appears to be better than the old version, but not so much better that an Office 2013 owner should be compelled to upgrade. It’s possible that will change as we get nearer to the release, but I’ll be surprised if anything truly groundbreaking were added to the already mature and capable suite.

Bottom line….
The Surface 3 is affordable, powerful, versatile, and flexible. It isn’t an engineering or gaming machine, but for work on the go, the Surface 3 seems to offer an ideal combination of features and functionality at the right price. It looks like Microsoft finally got it right with the Surface 3. I will be watching these devices going forward.

Until next time….Rob