Mythical Creatures – Corrupt User Profiles


“Ned” the Gnome


In the spirit of Halloween, I want to discuss mythical creatures. What would the world be without J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of smelly, leather-skinned Orcs or Greek Mythology’s gift of Pegasus, the winged stallion? Unfortunately, for each great mythical creature, like giant walking trees (that walk for hours—thank you Kevin Smith), there is a horrendous one. The dreadful creature I want to discuss today is the corrupt user profile.

I absolutely shudder when I hear the words “corrupt profile.” Like Superman, who is defeated by a glowing green rock—the corrupt profile is my kryptonite (Ned’s is the phrase Tips and Tricks). So, the purpose of this blog is to dispel the myth of the corrupt user profile.

Let me start by contradicting myself—there is actually such a thing as a corrupt user profile; however, it is extremely rare. I’ve spent over ten years at Microsoft and I’ve seen two—count them—two actual corrupt user profiles. I’ll identify the “real” corrupt profile later. First, let’s identify what is NOT a corrupt user profile because it’s more prevalent.

User profile load failure

Occasionally, users report their profiles not loading, or Windows informs users that it logged the user on with a temporary user profile. It’s rare for Windows to not load a user profile because it is a “corrupt” user profile. Typically, a user profile does not load because:

  • A process is not playing nice in the sandbox—meaning some process other than Winlogon opened ntuser.dat exclusively thereby preventing Winlogon from loading the user profile.
  • Windows cannot find the user profile. This is most often the case when using Roaming, Mandatory, or Super Mandatory user profiles. All these profile types require network connectivity. In these cases, no network means Windows will not loaded user profile.
  • Configuration – Windows is configured, through a policy or otherwise, not to load the user profile. Profile quota size, or slow links are common causes for this scenario.

The most common scenario classified as the mythical corrupt profile is the first, and rightly so because is painfully difficult to diagnose. Configuration is the second most likely scenario that attributes to the mythical corrupt profile. It’s rare to associate unavailable user profiles as corrupt, or scenarios involving the awesome access is denied error message.

User settings missing

Another scenario that perpetuates the corrupted profile myth is one that involves user settings disappearing. It’s unlikely that user settings disappear; it’s more likely the user settings were not saved. A number of scenarios can lead to this possibility.

Profile trickery

Most recently, I’ve seen a number of scenarios, mostly with Terminal Servers, where settings do not persist. Our case data show a trend of these scenarios using non-Microsoft profile management software. This software changes how Windows handles the user profile. Typically, these implementations treat the user profile as a local profile and then implements “magical magic” to roam user data back to a central location. This introduces a number of moving parts that must work correctly to ensure user settings are saved. Also, some of these non-Microsoft solutions allow you to partition portions of the user settings that persistent and those that do not. This allows control over which user settings roam through their solution and which settings do not. In these cases, verify the solution, third-party or otherwise, propagated the saved settings. However, this is not a corrupt user profile.

Multiple instances – last writer wins

Remember that Windows stores user settings in a registry file. The registry file is the smallest unit of roaming data. That means that Windows roams the entire user hive when the user logs off (or in the background with Windows 7). However, when a user logs on to multiple computers or has multiple sessions, then that user’s settings are only as good as the last session that writes to the central location.

Consider the following scenario. A user has a laptop and frequently uses Terminal Services. The user shares the same profile between these computers. On Friday, the user logs on their laptop—the profile is loaded. After some time, the user makes a Terminal Services connection and begins to work in that session. The user then disconnects the Terminal Services session and goes to lunch. When they return, they change their desktop background on their laptop. The user logs off at the end of the day and their saved user settings roam to the central location. On Monday, the user logs on expecting their new desktop background; however, they receive their old desktop background. You discover that idle Terminal Services sessions are configured to logoff after a preconfigured idle time. The session’s user settings have a later time stamp then the previous and therefore writes last, resulting in the user’s setting appearing as if they did not save. This is another reason why we encourageseparate user profiles for Terminal Services. So, add this experience to the list of mythical corrupt profiles.

Misbehaving applications

Another scenario that perpetuates the corrupt profile myth is with misbehaving applications that “magically” work when you delete the user profile. This is not a corrupt user profile. There is a big different between corrupt data and unexpected data. It’s difficult to determine what is wrong in these scenarios.

Clearly it is related to user data because resetting the user data to blank or nothing restores the application’s performance to the expected behavior. These scenarios require a thorough understanding of the application, how it consumes user data, and the upper and lower limits of each setting. Deleting the entire user profile to accommodate a misbehaving application is a quick fix with huge ramifications. The “fix” for one application effectively breaks other applications. Also, deleting the user profile removes stored credentials, keys, and certificates that may be critical to the user.

A better approach is to create a new user and test the application with a new user profile. But deleting a user profile because an application or a feature of an application does not work is overlooking the larger issue. Resist the urge and instead break out Process Monitor, capture registry activity, and reproduce the issue. Inventory the registry keys the applications uses in the user’s hive. Review the values of each of the keys in a working and failing scenario and compare the two. Use the process of elimination to determine the setting and value that is causing the failure.

If time is not on your side and you know deleting the user profile resolves the problem, then create a virtual machine of the problematic computer so you can continue your investigation at a later time. Incorrect data stored in user settings does not make the profile corrupt.

Will the real corrupt profile please stand up

I’ve identified some of the common misconceptions that are associated with the corrupt profile mythology, and there are others. However, these scenarios consistently rise to the top. So, what is a real corrupt profile? I’m glad you asked.

A user profile is a predetermined folder structure and accompanying registry data. Microsoft Windows uses the registry data to describe and preserve the user environment. The folder structure is storage for user and application data, specifically for an individual user. Windows stores the profile on the local hard drive, loads the profile when the user logs on, and unloads the profile when the user logs off.

01-corruptProfileThe preserved data that describes the user’s environment is nothing more than a registry hive. More specifically, the user’s registry portion of the profile is loaded into HKEY_CURRENT_USER. Registry hives,  keys, value names, and values are stored in a specific structure that Windows recognizes as the registry. Each element within the structure has its own metadata, such as last write time and security descriptor. All of this information must adhere to the scope and limits of the structure. Consider the following example.

An application saves the position of its window in the user’s settings. Window locations are represented as coordinates on the screen. These coordinates are integer values. Integers are positive or negative values. However, the upper left corner of the screen is typically represented by the coordinate 0, 0. What if another application saved -12 and 0 as this data? Both numbers are valid integers. It meets the structure of a REG_DWORD, which is an integer data type for the registry. Yet, the application does not work correctly when this value is present in the registry. This is not a corrupt profile—its bad data; however, not in the context of the registry or the profile. The registry only cares that the value is within the scope of that data type.

So, an actual corrupt profile is when the structure of the registry hive no longer conforms to the expected structure. I’ve seen this two times in 13 years and in both cases it was not exclusive to the user’s registry. The corruption persisted throughout registry hives and multiple aspects of the computer did not function correctly. In both these cases, new users with new profile as well as existing user with existing profiles experienced the problem. However, it was noticeable that multiple aspects of the computer were behaving poorly. Ultimately, the problem was diagnosed to a non-windows binary. The binary overwrote heap memory that the registry used. The binary modified that data before it was committed to disk. Then, Windows committed modified memory to disk; thereby misaligning the registry structure—which is a real corrupt user profile.


Be wary when you hear a co-worker reporting a corrupt user profile. Ask them if they saw it during their most recent snark hunting trip or during their last encounter with a ravenous Bugblatter Beast. More likely—they’ve seen one of the manifestations we’ve described in this post. It’s a difficult and time consuming problem to troubleshoot and resolve. But some additional diligence will surface the real problem.

–Mike Stephens

Background uploading of User Registry Settings

This post discusses an interesting feature I learned about in Windows 7. Many Microsoft customers deploy Roaming User Profiles. In fact, many combine Roaming User profiles and Folder Redirection to get the best experience possible. However, one of the drawbacks with Roaming User profiles is the user must logoff before their settings are uploaded to the server. Folder redirection solves this problem for any of the known folders within the user profile namespace, such as Documents, Music, or Downloads—the data is highly available without requiring a user logoff. Now, if this could only occur with user’s registry settings.

Windows 7 solves this problem by allowing the User Profile service to upload the user’s registry settings of a Roaming User profile while the user remains logged on to the computer, or terminal services session (provided the session is hosted on Windows Server 2008 R2).

You enabled this feature using Group Policy. The policy setting Background upload of a roaming user profile’s registry file while user is logged on, is located under Computer Configuration\Policies\Administrative Templates\System\User Profiles. The policy setting offers two configuration settings: scheduled or interval. The scheduled method allows you to configure a time of day (represented on 24 hour time) at which to upload the user’s registry settings. The interval method allow you to choose a specific interval (represented in hours) at which to upload the user’s registry settings. This method accepts an interval range between 1 and 720 inclusively. Both settings include a random delay that does not exceed one hour.

00-bgProfileUploadBackground uploading only occurs with Roaming User profile. Also, background uploading does not alter uploading the entire profile when the user logs off. It is important to remember that background uploading only uploads the user’s registry settings (ntuser.dat).

Now those subtle changes made in the registry can be uploaded to the server while the user remains logged on. Pretty cool.


–Mike Stephens

User Profile Policies in Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista

Windows Vista made numerous changes with how user profiles work. In fact, the changes are too numerous to describe here (you can read more about the changes with user profiles in the Managing Roaming User Data Deployment Guide ( However, the policy settings for user profiles from earlier versions of Windows remain and Windows Vista introduces five new policy settings.

Four of the five new policy settings for user profiles exist under Computer ConfigurationAdministrative TemplatesSystemUser Profiles (the remaining policy setting uses the same path under User Configuration). These five policy settings apply only to computers running Windows Server 2008 or Windows Vista, however; these policy settings can co-exist in GPO’s applicable to clients earlier than Windows Vista. Operating systems other than Windows Vista ignore the policy settings. Let me begin with the policy settings under the computer configuration and then close with the single user setting.

The first of these policy settings is Delete user profiles older that a specified number of days on system restart. This policy setting accepts a numeric value, represented in number of days. Windows uses this value to determine the how long it retains dormant user profiles. When you enable this policy, Windows deletes all user profiles older than the value provided. This policy setting measures one day as 24 hours since the last time Windows loaded the profile.

NOTE: Microsoft released a hotfix to correct problems specific to this policy setting. You can view more about the issue and related fix from Microsoft Knowledgebase article 945122 (

Sometimes, in earlier versions of Windows, the registry portion of the user profile fails to unload. Many times this failure prevents the user from subsequent logons to the same computer. Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista always unload the registry portion of the user profile, even if it must forcefully do so. The policy setting Do not forcefully unload the user registry at user logoff counters the default behavior of Windows Vista. When enabled, Windows Vista does not forcefully unload the registry and waits until no other processes are using the user registry before it unloads it.

The policy setting Set roaming user profile path for all users logging onto this computer provides you a way to create a shared user profile path for a specific computer. When you enable this policy, all users use the profile path specific in the policy when logging onto a computer receiving the policy. There is a small catch-there is an order of precedence. Windows reads profile configurations in the following order and uses the first configured setting.

  1. Terminal Services roaming profile path specified in the Terminal Services policy setting.
  2. Terminal Services roaming profile path specific in the user object.
  3. Per-computer roaming profile path specified in the above described policy setting.
  4. Per-user roaming profile path specified in the user object.

For example, if you configure the Terminal Services roaming profile path using the Terminal Services policy settings and, you also configure the per-computer roaming user profile policy setting, then Windows uses the roaming profile path from the Terminal Services policy. This result is due to the order in which Windows reads the roaming user profile path.

The last policy setting for user profiles under the Computer configuration is the Set maximum wait time for the network if a user has a roaming user profile or remote home folder. At logon, Windows Vista typically waits 30 seconds for an active network connection, when you configure the user with a roaming user profile or remote home directory. In cases such as wireless, VPN, or NAP-protected networks, it may take more time before the network connection becomes active. When enabled, Windows waits up to the number of seconds specified in the policy setting for an active network connection. Windows immediately proceeds with logging on the user as soon as the network connection is active or the wait time exceeds the value specified in the policy setting. Windows does not synchronize roaming user profile or use the remote home folder if the logon occurred before the network connection became active.

One policy setting for user profile exists under the User Configuration category. Actually, it is more of an Offline Files/ Folder Redirection policy setting. Windows Vista automatically marks all redirected folders as available offline. Windows Vista keeps track of all folders marked offline and synchronizes the contents of these folders between the local computer and the network location where you store the files. This synchronization process occurs at logon, periodically throughout the user session, and at logoff. You configure the policy setting by entering network paths that you only want synchronized during logon and logoff. Windows then places these specified network paths offline during the user session.

Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista Service Pack 1 provide several new Group Policy settings that affect User Profiles. Many of these new policies settings help overcome profile limitations with earlier versions of the operating system. Be sure to evaluate these settings to see how can help with your environment.

– Mike Stephens