Windows SteadyState: Designed to Provide a “Steadier State” for Public Access PCs

Windows SteadyState was formerly known as Microsoft’s Shared Computer Toolkit. Both the “Toolkit” and Windows SteadyState were discontinued freeware tool developed by Microsoft. The concept behind SteadyState was to provide teachers an easy to administer method for configuring public access computers. It was designed for use on computers shared by many people, such as internet cafes, schools, libraries, etc. In essence Windows Steady State was designed to maintain PC by delivering a “Steady PC State”

SteadyState was available until December 31, 2010 free of charge from Microsoft for computers running Windows XP and Windows Vista. A 64-bit version was never available and Microsoft ceased the continuation of development of Windows SteadyState. Thus as of Windows 7 – Steady State no longer was compatible.

The management of public access computers are technically challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. Moreover, without system restrictions and protections, users can unintentionally change the desktop appearance, reconfigure system settings, and introduce unwanted software, viruses, and other harmful programs. Repairs to shared computers that are damaged in this manner can require significant work. The Idea behind Windows SteadyState was to easily revert PC’s back to a pristine condition after being used by a learning student, or hacker wannabe.

Windows SteadyState: Who Was SteadyState Designed For?

SteadyState grew out of the U.S. Libraries Program from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The U.S. Libraries Program provided more than 60,000 PCs to 11,000 libraries during 2001 to 2003. Those “Gates PCs,” as they were known, came with lockdown software called the Public Access Security Tool (PAST). When the Gates Foundation dropped support of PAST in 2004, Microsoft picked up with the Shared Computer Toolkit in 2005, which begat SteadyState in 2007.

SteadyState was designed to be simple enough application that could be managed by teachers and low-tech admins of small schools, libraries and computer labs that we for “non-profit”. Thus it was offered for free. However the architechture of of Microsoft’s Shared Computer Toolkit (aka. SteadyState) was not a simple installation process. Which was most probably the reason for its failure… SteadyState failed to provide a low tech solution for their intended market (non technical teachers and librarians). Steady State was more complicated and challenging for typical rural teachers to adopt. In fact, it was more technical organization that became users of this technology, and because of their advanced development requirements, Steady State became more of a liability to Microsoft.

SteadyState 2.5, the last version, was released quite a few years ago. Microsoft never added Windows 7 to SteadyState’s repertoire, nor did SteadyState support any 64-bit version of Windows. And now SteadyState is officially left to pasture.

If you use SteadyState, you can continue to use it. However, Microsoft just won’t support you any more.

Windows SteadyState: Restore PC on Restart

Not only does SteadyState return the PC back to its original state, but you can lock down virtually every aspect of the computer from programs to websites and more. Of course you’ll need to be the administrator, and the first thing to do is install current drivers and Windows Updates. Then install programs and configure settings you want to how you want the machine to be every time it’s restored. Once everything is set up and you create different user account, you can let the public have at it. Any changes they make to the configuration will be undone just by restarting the machine. Originally there were hard drive restore software solutions that had this same functionality. But with respect to Windows Steady State, here we take a look at SteadyState running on a Windows XP machine.

SteadyState: How It Worked

SteadyState caches all of the writes made to the PC’s boot drive. The administrator can have SteadyState clear the cache every time the PC reboots, restoring the PC to its original state. Thus the reboot and restore process. Downloaded Windows updates get special dispensation; they aren’t zapped when the cache refreshes.

The program’s settings allow the administrator to restrict access to many parts of Windows: the Registry Editor, Task Manager, adding or removing printers, burning CDs or DVDs, and much more. Internet Explorer can be blocked or limited to specific sites. Specific programs can also be blocked, either for specific users or for all users. An administrator can even hide entire hard drives, making them inaccessible. Users can be allotted a maximum number of opportunities they’re allowed to access the machine, and an administrator can force a reboot after a specific amount of time.

The Situation Today

Schools, libraries, and other shared computing environments face ongoing challenges to reduce costs while needing to offer better performance, availability, and efficiencies with their diminished budgets.

To manage PCs on such small networks usually means removing unwanted changes that the public users have made on those machines. So it would be ideal if after one public user has ended their session and the next user logs on that the machines would automatically return to a baseline.

SteadyState was a very useful Windows utility that Microsoft provided free of charge and would enable managers of these sorts of shared-access computers to continually reset the machines back to a predefined pristine state (or “baseline”). Unfortunately, for those who lack the technical training or wherewithal to acquaint themselves with Group Policies, Active Directory, Windows Server Update Services, et cetra, et cetra,… SteadyState was a cumbersome system which involved many unnecessary complexities and hassles. Perhaps for these reasons SteadyState was discontinued as of Dec. 31, 2010 and it’s not supported for Windows 7 and now Windows 8.

Utilities that Write-Protect the Harddrive: Reboot Restore Software

There are many expensive commercial restore-on-reboot utilities out there that essentially do this as well. Most of them write-protect the harddrive so that any changes made by public users are discarded upon restart. Good example of popular reboot on restore solutions are Listed Here and Reboot Restore Rx Professional. They intercept changes and redirect them to a temporary partition that then discards such changes on the next reboot, very similar to SteadyState.

In order to do updates SteadyState would turn the Windows Disk Protection off on a dedicated data cache. If this redirected data cache uses a significant amount of space and once it becomes close to full Window will force a restart so that it can be cleared. What this means is that the public user would suddenly find their session needing to end if they’ve used up this amount of space on the harddrive. SteadyState can take up as much as a quarter or even half of the harddrive’s space.

In order to move the baseline forward by incorporating the latest applications and operating system updates then means turning off the write-protection to allow the Windows updates, new virus-scan defintions, and program changes to be written on the harddrive. With most commercial restore-on-reboot products this means that while updates take place the system is left unprotected. In addition, this means not being able to undo the baseline updates. Many IT managers of these commercial restore-on-reboot products find that program conficts, botched updates, hard resets of the machine instead of shutting down properly, and other such issues cause Windows performance to degrade over time. Eventually, these systems require the occational reinstall of Windows from scratch.

Another affordable alternative for a lot of these small networks is to use desktop lockdown software, limiting the users’ Windows accounts to restrict their privileges. This would make the PC management easier but would necessarily also eliminate useful Windows functionality and constrain the users’ productivity.

Alternative for Windows SteadyState

So what options are there for a restore-on-reboot type software alternative to Windows discontinued Steady State?

There is a need for a simple restore-on-reboot application that would enable these IT managers to quickly recover from common everyday PC problems.

Introducing Reboot Restore Rx

We’ve been listening to a lot of these PC administrators and wanted to address their needs. So we stripped down our popular instant restore software down to its simplest form. We call this new freeware Reboot Restore Rx. It’s a SteadyState-like solution without all the superfluous add-ons that made SteadyState so intricately involved and convoluted to use. Reboot Restore Rx is also much more intuitive; there’s no steep learning curve to learn how it works.

Horizon DataSys’ patented sector-mapping technology uses less than 0.07% of the harddisk space to store the baseline. The public users are free to mess up the PC and the admin can return it to the sector-map (or baseline) without having to put aside a sizable portion of the harddisk space.