Windows 7 : Configuring System Protection Options

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System Restore made its first shaky appearance in the late, unlamented Windows Me. With each successive version of Windows, this important feature has taken on whole new responsibilities. System Restore is now part of a larger feature known as System Protection, whose primary job is to take periodic snapshots of designated local storage volumes. These snapshots make note of differences in the details of your system configuration (registry settings, driver files, third-party applications, and so on), allowing you to undo changes and roll back a system configuration to a time when it was known to work correctly. In Windows 7 (as in Windows Vista), the volume snapshots also include data files on designated drives. The effect of this expansion is to create real-time backups of individual data files, allowing you to recover from unwanted edits or unexpected deletions by restoring a previous version of a file or folder from Windows Explorer.

Periodically checking the status of System Protection is an essential part of a comprehensive backup strategy: Is the feature enabled and working properly on the drives where you need its protection? Is the proper amount of space set aside for it, not too much or too little?

The mechanics of System Protection in Windows 7 are substantially changed from those of its predecessors in Windows Vista and Windows XP. It uses disk space more intelligently and offers significantly more customization options. In this section, we explain how this feature works and what it backs up, how to turn it on or off for a given disk, and how to create a manual restore point.

Normally, automatic restore points are created at least once every 7 days. (This is a significant change from Windows Vista, which created snapshots daily.) Restore points are also created automatically before the following major system events:

  • Installation of any application that uses an installer that complies with System Restore requirements In practice, any program that qualifies for the Windows Vista or Windows 7 logo will create a new restore point before performing any installation tasks (including removal).

  • Installation of any updates provided through Windows Update or Microsoft Update System Restore creates a restore point before the installation of the update begins, whether the update is installed automatically or manually.

  • System Restore If you choose to use System Restore to roll back to an earlier configuration, the system creates a fresh restore point first. If necessary, you can undo the restore operation by choosing the freshly created restore point.

  • Any backup operation performed by Windows Backup System Restore points are created by Windows Backup as part of both file backups and system images.

Inside Out: What's in a restore point?

Restore points created by Windows Vista and Windows 7 include information about changes made to any files on that volume since the previous snapshot was created. If you have enabled the option to monitor system settings, snapshots contain two additional data points: a full copy of the registry as of the time of the snapshot, and a list of files that include any of 250+ file-name extensions specifically designated for monitoring. This list (which cannot be modified) contains many file types that are clearly programs and system files, with extensions such as .exe, .dll, and .vbs. But it also includes other files that you might not think of as system files, including .inf and .ini, and some that are truly head-scratchers, such as .d01 through .d05 and .d32. (Apparently .d06 through .d31 are unmonitored.) The entire list is available at It's most useful for programmers and system administrators, but you might want to take a look at it if you're curious why using System Restore deleted a file that you thought was perfectly safe.

To access the full set of System Restore options, open System in Control Panel and click the System Protection link in the left pane. (To go directly to the System Properties dialog box, click Start, type systempropertiesprotection, and press Enter.) The resulting dialog box, shown in Figure 1, lists all available NTFS-formatted drives (internal and external). The value under Protection Settings indicates whether restore points are being created automatically for each drive.

Using the System Properties dialog box, you can enable or disable automatic monitoring for any local drive. In addition, you can specify whether you want restore points for a given drive to include system configuration settings and previous versions of files or to save previous versions only. By design, system protection is fully enabled for the system drive and is disabled for all other local drives.

Figure 1. By default, System Restore monitors changes to the system drive. Select another drive and click Configure to enable System Protection for that drive.

Warning: System Restore is a powerful and useful tool, and you shouldn't disable it on your system drive without a good reason. If you're extremely low on disk space and a hard disk upgrade is impractical or impossible (as on some notebook computers), you might choose to do so, although you should try limiting its use of disk space, as we explain later in this section, before shutting it down completely.

If you've set aside one or more drives exclusively for data, you might want to enable the creation of automatic restore points on those drives, which has the effect of creating shadow copies of files you change or delete on that drive. This step is especially important if you've relocated one or more profile folders to drives other than the one on which Windows is installed. To enable or disable the creation of automatic restore points for a drive, open the System Properties dialog box, select the drive letter from the list under Protection Settings, and click Configure. Figure 2 shows the recommended settings for a secondary drive that contains data files and system image backups only. We've chosen the second option, Only Restore Previous Versions Of Files, rather than the default, which also tracks system settings.

Figure 2. For this drive, which is used to store data files only, we've enabled System Protection but configured it to ignore system settings and only save previous versions of files.

The information under the Disk Space Usage heading shows both the current usage and the maximum amount of space that will be used for snapshots before System Protection begins deleting old restore points to make room for new ones. By default, a clean installation of Windows 7 sets aside space for system protection based on the size of the hard drive. On a volume larger than 64 GB, the default amount of reserved space is 5 percent of the disk or 10 GB, whichever is less. On a volume that is smaller than 64 GB, the default disk space usage is limited to a maximum of 3 percent of the drive's total space. (The minimum space required is 300 MB.)

Note: The disk space usage rules for system protection in Windows 7 represent a significant change over those in place for Windows Vista and Windows XP. If you upgrade a PC from Windows Vista to Windows 7, Windows does not adjust the maximum disk space settings previously in place. Thus, for an upgrade, you might discover that a given drive has reserved as much as 30 percent of your free disk space for volume snapshots. In that case, you might want to manually lower the reserved space, using the steps in this section.

To adjust the maximum amount of disk space available for volume snapshots, click the System Protection tab in the System Properties dialog box, select a drive letter from the list of available drives, click Configure, and move the Max Usage slider to the value you prefer. For drives greater than 64 GB in size, you can choose any value between 1 percent and 100 percent; for drives that are smaller than 64 GB, the minimum reserved space is 300 MB.

Inside Out: Don't follow old System Restore advice

In Windows Vista, the tools for configuring system protection were relatively inflexible. By default, the system set aside 15 percent of each drive for System Restore snapshots. This value could be adjusted using the DiskPercent value in the registry key HKLM\ Software\Microsoft\WindowsNT\CurrentVersion\SystemRestore\Cfg. Although this key is created on a clean installation of Windows 7, it does not appear to have any effect. In addition, the only way to adjust the size of reserved space for System Protection files in Windows Vista was by opening an elevated command prompt and using the Vssadmin Resize Shadowstorage command. Although the Vssadmin command is still available in Windows 7, you can accomplish the same goal in much simpler fashion with the Max Usage slider in the System Protection dialog box.

You can also manually create a restore point at any time for all drives that have system protection enabled by clicking the Create button at the bottom of the System Protection tab. If you're concerned about disk space usage and you're confident that you won't need to use any of your currently saved restore points in the near future, you can click the Delete button under the Disk Space Usage heading to remove all existing restore points without changing other System Protection settings.

Note: The default location for System Restore data is d:\System Volume Information, where d is the letter of each drive. Each restore point is stored in its own subfolder, under a name that includes a unique 32-character alphanumeric identifier called a GUID. This location cannot be changed. On an NTFS drive, these files are not accessible to users, even those in the Administrators group; the default NTFS permissions grant access only to the System account, and there is no easy way to view these files or to take ownership of them (nor should you even consider doing so, as these data structures are not intended for use by anything other than a program working through tightly controlled application programming interfaces).

If you've set up a dual-boot system with Windows XP and Windows 7 (or Windows Vista) on the same system, you should be aware of one unfortunate side effect caused by this configuration. When you boot into Windows XP, the system wipes out all restore points created by the later Windows version. New restore points are created at the usual times when you return to Windows 7, but all previous restore points are gone. This unfortunate state of affairs is caused because Windows XP doesn't recognize the format of the newer restore points; assuming they're corrupt, it deletes them and creates new ones.

Inside Out: Customize System Restore intervals

As we noted earlier, Windows 7 creates restore points in response to specific system events, including the installation of a program, a device driver, or an update delivered via Automatic Updates. Using a scheduled task, the system checks at every startup and at midnight every day to see when the last restore point was created. If more than 7 days have passed, the system automatically creates a new restore point. If you prefer to have regular checkpoints created more often, you can do so in either of two ways. The easiest way is to schedule a daily backup that includes a system image. The more complicated solution involves a script and a custom scheduled task.

Create a text file using the following code:

Set oRP = getobject("winmgmts:\\.\root\default:Systemrestore")
newRestore = oRP.createrestorepoint ("Created by my scheduled task", 0, 100)

Running this script will create a restore point using the generic description "Created by my scheduled task." Save the file using a name such as Instant_RP and the file name extension .vbs.

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