The terminology is somewhat misleading, as each registry key is similar to an associative array, where standard terminology would refer to the name part of each registry value as a "key". The terms are a holdout from the 16-bit registry in Windows 3, in which registry keys could not contain arbitrary name/data pairs, but rather contained only one unnamed value (which had to be a string). In this sense, the Windows 3 registry was like a single associative array, in which the keys (in the sense of both 'registry key' and 'associative array key') formed a hierarchy, and the registry values were all strings. When the 32-bit registry was created, so was the additional capability of creating multiple named values per key, and the meanings of the names were somewhat distorted. For compatibility with the previous behavior, each registry key may have a "default" value, whose name is the empty string.
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Windows NT kernels support redirection of INI file-related APIs into a virtual file in a registry location such as HKEY_CURRENT_USER using a feature called "InifileMapping". This functionality was introduced to allow legacy applications written for 16-bit versions of Windows to be able to run under Windows NT platforms on which the System folder is no longer considered an appropriate location for user-specific data or configuration. Non-compliant 32-bit applications can also be redirected in this manner, even though the feature was originally intended for 16-bit applications.
The policy file is created by a free tool by Microsoft that goes by the filename poledit.exe for Windows 95/Windows 98 and with a computer management module for Windows NT. The editor requires administrative permissions to be run on systems that uses permissions. The editor can also directly change the current registry settings of the local computer and if the remote registry service is installed and started on another computer it can also change the registry on that computer. The policy editor loads the settings it can change from .ADM files, of which one is included, that contains the settings the Windows shell provides. The .ADM file is plain text and supports easy localisation by allowing all the strings to be stored in one place.
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With Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME and Windows NT 4.0, administrators can use a special file to be merged into the registry, called a policy file (POLICY.POL). The policy file allows administrators to prevent non-administrator users from changing registry settings like, for instance, the security level of Internet Explorer and the desktop background wallpaper. The policy file is primarily used in a business with a large number of computers where the business needs to be protected from rogue or careless users.
The default extension for the policy file is .POL. The policy file filters the settings it enforces by user and by group (a "group" is a defined set of users). To do that the policy file merges into the registry, preventing users from circumventing it by simply changing back the settings. The policy file is usually distributed through a LAN, but can be placed on the local computer.
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In Windows, use of the registry for storing program data is a matter of developer's discretion. Microsoft provides programming interfaces for storing data in XML files (via MSXML) or database files (via SQL Server Compact) which developers can use instead. Developers are also free to use non-Microsoft alternatives or develop their own proprietary data stores.