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What is a roaming profile and how does it work?

Although several newer tools are 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 on 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 user's packaged data on 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 local 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 users log in from a different physical desktop or virtual desktop, their profile data won't exist on that machine. This is where it's important for IT professionals to know what a roaming profile is.

How do roaming profiles work?

With a roaming user profile, employees' data follows them from device to device. These profiles are stored 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 an employee logs in, Windows copies the user's profile from the organization's network share of profiles to the local computer. When the employee logs off, Windows copies any updates the user made to profile data from the desktop computer to the network copy of the profile. This process ensures that the roaming user profile contains current data the next time the employee logs into a virtual desktop or PC.

Software and hardware requirements for roaming profiles

If an organization uses Windows Server 2008 or newer and Windows 7 or later, administrators can create roaming profiles, which live on a server and are accessible on any computer connected to the company network. On the hardware side, admins should ensure the endpoint is x64- or x86-based.

Roaming profiles have been a standard and cost-effective way to deliver user settings across physical and virtual desktops for more than a decade.

For the initial setup, administrators must have the Group Policy Management Console and Active Directory Administrative Center installed on a machine that will manage these profiles. The endpoints must also be connected to any Active Directory Domain Services that the desktop needs access to.

Folder redirection

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 share. Organizations commonly use folder redirection in conjunction with roaming profiles to speed up the logon and logoff process, improve the UX and reduce any latency with the desktop authenticating via the domain controller.

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.

What options are there to manage roaming user profiles?

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 UX management tool called User Experience Virtualization 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 third-party user profile management tools are also available for organizations that know what roaming profile management features they need.

Next Steps

Microsoft updates roaming profiles with UE-V

How Microsoft's UE-V tool works

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Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop management

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