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" – in essence restoring PC’s to a baseline on every restart.
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.
Where would Windows Steady State be deployed?
The management of public access computers are technically challenging. Not only time-consuming, but expensive if you do not have the right PC automation tools. 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 restore PC's back to a pristine condition after being used by a learning student, or potential hacker.
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 began Windows SteadyState in 2007.
Windows SteadyState – Not so Steady for most Teachers
Microsoft 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 architecture of Microsoft's Shared Computer Toolkit (aka. SteadyState) was not as simple as it seemed. 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 used by more technical advanced users and organizations. Perhaps due to their advanced development requirements, Steady State became more of a liability to Microsoft to support.
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.
Windows 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.
In order to do updates on SteadyState – one would need to 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 hard drive. SteadyState can take up as much as a quarter or even half of the hard drive’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 definitions, and program changes to be written on the hard drive. 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 conflicts, 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 occasional reinstall of Windows from scratch.
The Steady State Software 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 prestine state (or "baseline"). Unfortunately, for those who lack the technical training or wherwithal 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, 2012 and it's not supported for Windows 7 and now Windows 8.
So what options are there for a Free SteadyState type utility? Any application that is designed to restore PC on restart would fall under this category. Most of which are commercial software products such a Drive Vaccine or RollBack Rx. However for the best Free Utility it would have to be Reboot Restore Rx: