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The horror of the Windows registry

November 15th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Whilst there are plenty of people who mistakenly follow a technical religion, there are actually some very good technical reasons for minimising your use of Microsoft Windows. The main one of these is the horror of the Windows Registry.

At the heart of Windows lies a group of binary files that store almost all the configuration information for both the operation sytem itself and the installed applications, collectively called the Windows registry. Other operating systems have individual configuration files, sometimes binary and sometimes text.

The registry has lots of problems:

  • It can’t be edited by hand with a text editor, a specialist tool is needed. I realise this applies to other configuration systems (like OSX plist) and I would make the same comment about them.
  • Spurious entries and corruption in the registry can cause slowness and operational problems. It’s for this reason that a great market has grown up in registry cleaning software.
  • Corruption is non-obvious to spot. This is caused partly by the binary format and partly by the cross-linking between various parts of the registry. This is another reason why registry cleaning software is needed.
  • The configuration information for a particular application appears all over the place, not just one place in the registry, so you can’t easily see all the information you need at once.
  • It is not easy to just swap between two configuration sets for an application without considerable hassle. With config files it is of course easy enough to just keep various copies and move them around as needed.
  • De-installation of applications is a nightmare so normally only the installing application can do it since the bits can be all over the place. Of course if you don’t have the installing application, or it does not have a good de-installer then we need a registry cleaner, again.
  • The registry is a single point of failure. If you lose one of these files (say the software one) then you lose all the configuration information for all applications.

Therefore, the impact of the registry compared to separate config files is:

  • It takes a lot more time to get anything done.
  • It takes much more effort to learn.
  • The routes open to a sysadmin to test and debug are much more limited compared to other OSs.
  • When it goes wrong, it take much longer to fix.
  • It ends up costing a lot more money to support.
  • Systems are less stable.

All very good reasons for just sticking with separate configuration files, as other operatings systems do, preferrably in text format.

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