April 2007

Along with Vista’s UAC security infrastructure Microsoft implemented something very clever, but has caused administrators and Perl coders frustration: User File and Registry Virtualization.

The concept of UAC (http://www.roth.net/blog/index.php/2007/04/02/vista-and-user-account-control-uac/)  is useful since it places finer control over what non-administrators can and cannot do. One of the core tenets of UAC is that a non-administrator should not be able to make changes that impact other users. For example if I make changes to an application’s settings they should only impact me, not other users of the computer. To accommodate this non-administrative access Vista virtualizes access by creating an alternate location for files and registry keys. The OS tries very hard to make this seamless so when an application tries to access a file or registry key it is redirected to the user’s virtual storage area.

In general this virtualization works, however for technical folk who want to access files directly they may be surprised to find the files are “missing”. Let say, for example, you want to manually edit an application’s configuration file. If the application was installed in the “Program Files” directory you may expect to find the file at C:\Program Files\MyApp\MyApp.cfg. But the file is really located in the path C:\Users\userID\AppData\Local\VirtualStore\Program Files\MyApp\MyApp.cfg.

Say what you will about Windows Vista but don’t think that it isn’t a big deal. Regardless of how you may feel about Microsoft, they put a lot of work into the Vista operating system. Sure the UI may not be as snazzy as Apple’s OS X and it is barren of some features from the promised land like WinFS. But there is an awful lot under the hood. Yes it is true that a Vista box really should have a recently upgraded machine to afford the resource costs the OS takes. But if you can afford the machine that runs the OS well rest assured that there are changes worth having. The problem that Microsoft faces is that these changes are not easy to quantify for the average consumer. How would you explain to your Mother about the benefits of the new media APIs? Or try convincing your boss to upgrade the entire IT department so that your machines could leverage PnP-X and Function Discovery. No, the innovations that underline the OS are not obvious to the layman. However there is one exception: security.