User profile management tools are an important consideration for companies that use VDI, a Remote Desktop Session Host or that have a lot of workers moving between devices, as well as for organizations that want to embrace the rapid update cadence of Windows 10.
The user profile, which ties together all of a user's applications, data and configuration settings, is an often overlooked component of the entire user experience. During Windows rollouts, for example, problems with user profiles are a common occurrence. User profile management tools work to save the registry keys and file system entries associated with a profile in a central location, and to restore them to the user either at logon or whenever necessary.
The user profile can exist on any computing device, from laptops and desktops to mobile phones and tablets, but user profile management commonly relates directly to Windows-based profiles.
Most computers in the workplace run Windows and Windows applications. Even the devices that don't run Windows usually access Windows applications in some way through virtualization, a containerization process or another type of remoting. A Windows user profile contains file system entries and registry data.
To truly understand the importance of user profile management tools, it's essential to learn about the different profile types, as well as how personalization and policy differ.
Types of user profiles
There are four traditional types of user profiles to know about.
Local profiles are stored on the user's device. The profile can be as large as necessary, can load quickly and is available at all times.
The profile is specifically tied to the device, however. As a result, if the user logs on to a different device or service, his profile will not reflect the changes he has saved.
Roaming profiles were Microsoft's first answer to the problem of users working with multiple devices. They save the user's profile to a network share. When the user logs on to a new device, a copy of the profile saves and any profile changes he makes carry over to the next device he uses.
Admins often combine roaming profiles with folder redirection to avoid problems with large profiles slowing down logon and logoff times. Although viable, this process requires network storage and is specific to particular versions of Windows. So far, there are six different profile versions that Microsoft uses in iterations of Windows OS.
Roaming profiles can introduce problems, such as bloat -- where the profiles become oversized -- and corruption -- where multiple instances of a profile create inconsistencies -- and they can cause issues with key performance indicators, such as logon times and even occasional application instability.
Mandatory profiles are a special kind of roaming profile where the user always loads a specific, predefined version of his profile. Any changes he makes to that profile are discarded when he logs off.
Mandatory profiles are useful in organizations where it is essential that each user has the same experience and no changes to a profile persist. These profiles are common in education, training and kiosk settings.
With extensive research into profile management software, TechTarget editors have focused this series of articles on vendors that offer profile management as a native platform. Our research included Gartner, Forrester and TechTarget surveys.
There are also super-mandatory profiles, which do not allow a user to log on at all unless he loads the mandatory profile.
Hybrid profiles are an attempt to combine the speed and availability of a local profile with the full roaming capability of a roaming profile. These profiles use profile management software to overcome the limitations of traditional roaming profiles and provide the user with an experience he can use across multiple devices without compromising usability.
A true hybrid profile platform provides users with a consistent look and feel across multiple resources and devices, along with responsive access and logon and logoff times. Depending on the complexity of the software IT uses and the requirements it enforces, IT could even provide hybrid profiles across multiple version of Windows.
Policy vs. personalization
Policy refers to the enforcement of particular settings on devices. For instance, IT can enforce the same desktop background on all enterprise laptops. Personalization means that the user can choose and then retain personal preferences for settings, such as the desktop background or screen saver. Those changes persist whenever he logs onto his profile.
Many profile management tools also enable IT to set policy as part of the core tool set. Doing so expands profile management software to a broader category of user environment management or unified endpoint management software.
Why user profile management is important
More organizations are investing in user profile management tools as a way to quickly get users back up and running in case their primary device fails. If a Windows update causes a device to fail, admins can use a profile management tool to reimage the system and restore the user's settings, resulting in a much quicker recovery time, which salvages productivity.
Organizations of all sizes use profile management software, although the higher end tools are more prevalent in medium to large organizations because of the extra resources it takes to maximize the benefits.
Even with SaaS applications -- which enable IT administrators to store profile settings in the back end of the app itself -- becoming more popular, user profiles will not be completely abstracted away from the device any time soon. The hundreds of thousands of legacy applications organizations use almost all store some user-specific settings on the local device.
Even if the device is simply a workspace from which users can access SaaS applications, they will still have personal configuration settings on that workspace that make up a user profile.