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App Development
5 minutes read

What Is UAC Virtualization?

By Jose Gomez
By Jose Gomez
App Development
5 minutes read

UAC virtualization is an innovative solution that helps users utilize legacy software and the latest Windows operating system. At the heart of UAC virtualization are security and compatibility. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t understand how UAC virtualization protects operating systems and user accounts. 

This post will give your business an understanding of what UAC virtualization is, why it is crucial to protect system files and some of the limitations inherent in UAC virtualization. 

However, before we can explain and explore UAC virtualization, we must understand User Account Control (UAC) and how it interacts with the Windows operating system. 

Gaining an Understanding of User Account Control (UAC)

If you have ever used Windows systems, you are likely familiar with a UAC prompt. A UAC prompt is a popup message asking for authorization when installing software

Essentially, this UAC prompt is a request from the operating system to the user to enable software applications to have specific device permissions

User Account Control was first introduced in Windows Vista. The idea was to minimize system-wide changes and only allow users with administrator privileges to give or take away these permissions. 

Typically, the software won’t need to access system paths. As a result, Windows restricts this access with User Account Control. This made Windows Vista and the operating systems that followed it more secure than Windows XP. 

With User Account Control, software that attempts to write to any system path will automatically fail. If the software requires this access to properly execute program files, a UAC prompt will appear, asking users if the software should be allowed the access it wants. 

Generally, this will happen when a new software update is required. 

UAC instantly made Windows systems more secure. Before UAC, the software could write anywhere on the device without checks or balances. 

For example, a malicious program could manipulate system files, corrupt installed program files, stop software installed on the device, and even download or remove programs. Such access posed a significant security risk to users. 

Windows UAC rules protect installed program files, user accounts, and system registry settings from being damaged or modified by unauthorized users or programs. 

While the User Account Control improvements released after Windows Vista gave devices more security options and greater control over administrator privileges, there were some issues with legacy software.

UAC virtualization was developed to address the issues new UAC security options caused with legacy programs and systems. 

UAC Virtualization Defined 

With the introduction of UAC, the write access for many legacy programs changed, and these programs could no longer function properly. This caused a significant problem for organizations reliant on these legacy programs. 

UAC virtualization provides the user access control legacy programs require to function without breaking the strict system isolation created by UAC

UAC virtualization essentially fools legacy programs into thinking they have user path file and registry write access when they don’t. UAC virtualization can also be applied to the system registry through registry virtualization. 

Windows registry virtualization blocks access to global registry keys and files while allowing programs that require access to the registry to continue functioning. 

Windows 10 and 11 include file and registry virtualization technologies for programs that are not UAC-compliant and require an administrator’s access token to function as expected.

How to Enable UAC Virtualization

UAC virtualization features are disabled by default, so if you want to disable UAC virtualization, you don’t have to take any action. 

To enable UAC virtualization, you need to visit the Control Panel. Once the Control Panel menu is open, follow this path: Configuration/Policies/Windows Settings/Security Settings, Local Policies, and Security Options. 

Here you will find an option that reads, “User Account Control: Virtualize file and registry write failures to per-user locations.” Next, click the box that reads “Enabled,” and now you have enabled UAC virtualization. 

If you want to disable UAC virtualization at any time, just follow these steps and click on the option to disable UAC virtualization. 

Disabling UAC virtualization is not a great idea because it makes your system vulnerable to malicious programs and attacks. In addition to the security issues, some programs will not function correctly without UAC virtualization. 

The Problems With UAC Virtualization 

Although UAC virtualization makes systems more secure and enables legacy programs to function as expected, there are issues with UAC virtualization that should be addressed

The primary issues with UAC virtualization include the following: 

  • Permissions – For UAC virtualization to work correctly, users must have access to the files within the original file path. Any attempt to write to read-only files could lead to errors and software crashes. 
  • 32-bit only – UAC virtualization will only work on 32-bit apps. 
  • Administrator – For UAC virtualization to function correctly, users cannot run the app with administrator privileges. UAC virtualization only works on standard user accounts. 

However, the biggest issue with UAC virtualization is that it has to be manually enabled in the local security policy window with the “Virtualize file and registry write failures to per-user locations” option. 

Unless you are savvy enough to understand these Windows settings, you likely won’t know to turn this feature on, which is a big issue. 

Final Thoughts 

If UAC virtualization seems overwhelming to you, don’t worry. UAC virtualization is slowly being phased out as Windows moves further away from Vista, and enterprise software is built to modern standards. UAC virtualization was never meant to be a long-term solution, just a temporary solution to ensure legacy programs would still function properly.

If you want to learn more about UAC virtualization and how it impacts your organization, reach out to a skilled technical partner like Koombea.

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