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How does a roaming user profile work?

Although there are several newer tools available, Microsoft roaming profiles is a simple and time-tested way to manage a user's profile across physical and virtual desktop environments.

Microsoft's roaming profiles give IT administrators a basic option to provide users with their personal settings...

and data from any device or virtual desktop connected to the corporate network.

Windows maintains a profile for each user who logs into the OS.  The user's profile folder contains user-specific data and customizations such as application configuration data, browser history, documents, photos and much more. User profiles vary depending on which version of Windows an organization uses, but most Windows versions include a folder named C:\Users. A user's profile lives there in another folder usually titled with the user's name or an identifying number that IT assigns.

The problem with standard user profiles is that they are tied to an individual desktop. If a user logs in from a different physical desktop or virtual desktop, his profile data won't exist on that machine.

Microsoft designed roaming user profiles to solve this problem. If an organization uses Windows Server 2000 or newer, administrators can create roaming profiles, which live on a server and are accessible on any computer connected to the company network. With a roaming user profile, an employee's data follows him from device to device.

Roaming profiles work by storing the user's profile on a network server rather than on a desktop computer. Admins can configure Active Directory so that it associates the roaming user profile with the user's account. When the employee logs in, Windows copies the user's profile from the network to the local computer. When he logs off, Windows copies any updates he made to profile data from the desktop computer to the network copy of the profile. That process ensures that the roaming user profile remains up to date the next time the employee logs into a virtual desktop or PC.

One of the problems with roaming profiles is that profiles can grow to be quite large. The logon or logoff duration increases according to the profile size because of the amount of data copied to or from the network. It has become common for organizations to use folder redirection in conjunction with roaming profiles to speed up the logon and logoff process and improve the user experience. Folder redirection allows folders such as Documents to remain centrally located -- usually on a file server -- rather than being copied to and from the desktop PC.

Roaming profiles have been a standard and cost-effective way to deliver user settings across physical and virtual desktops for more than a decade, although Microsoft also released a user experience management tool called User Experience Virtualization (UE-V) in 2012. Microsoft UE-V virtualizes users' operating systems and application settings from a settings store on a file server. Roaming user profiles are still a good basic option to provide the same experience across PC and virtual desktop environments, but there are also third-party user profile management tools available for companies with specific needs.

Next Steps

Microsoft updates roaming profiles with UE-V

How Microsoft's UE-V tool works

Should you ever delete VDI user profiles?

This was last published in November 2015

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