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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Logical Structures and File Systems | New Technology File System (NTFS) | NTFS Security and Permissions ]

Static Permission Inheritance

A typical NTFS volume will have thousands of folders and files on it--if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Can you imagine using such a volume, and being forced to assign permissions to all of those objects? Worse, can you imagine being the administrator of such a system? Well, I can, and it's not a pretty sight. :^) Fortunately, the folks at Microsoft made NTFS so that you don't have to worry about this sort of nightmare.

When you are using Windows NT and create a new subfolder or file within a folder, the new object is given a default set of permissions by copying the current set of permissions associated with the object's parent folder. This is called permission inheritance, or sometimes, propagation. Under NT's inheritance model, this only happens once, at the time the object is created. For this reason, conventional inheritance under NT is also called static permission inheritance, to distinguish it from the dynamic inheritance used by Windows 2000.

While static inheritance is certainly much better than no inheritance, it creates serious difficulties for administrators who need to manage large directory structures. Imagine a large tree structure of folders. Under static inheritance, after any subfolder is created, its permissions are no longer linked to those of the parent object. This makes it easy for any grouping or "branch" of the tree to have its permissions changed after the face. The administrators have no easy way to keep track of these changes or, in some cases, to even tell that they have occurred. Problems are particularly likely to occur if the "Full Control" permission group has been used, as this means users are free to play around with the permissions on parts of the directory structure. Also, the static inheritance makes it very difficult to add new permissions to an existing structure. Suppose you create a new user group and want to give everyone in that group access to an existing set of directories: how do you do it?

To address these concerns, Windows NT provides a special feature when permissions are being assigned. If you select the "Replace Permissions on Subdirectories" and "Replace Permissions on Existing Files" options when changing the permissions of a folder, NT will reset the permissions of all child objects to match those of the parent. So if you add a new user group and want to give it access to the existing structure, you can use these options to force NT to propagate the new permissions down the directory tree, giving the new user group access to every folder and file.

However, this solution has one very big problem with it: whenever you propagate permissions in this manner, you wipe out any custom permissions that may have been set on child objects. This makes it a very inelegant tool--a "permissions sledgehammer", if you will. Now, if your aim is to address the deeds of adventurous users who have been playing with permissions, erasing permissions from subfolders and files may be exactly what you want. However, in many instances, resetting permissions in this way can lead to a disaster. You could have a document storage directory called "C:\Documents" on a server, with a tree containing dozens of subfolders belonging to different people, and permissions set to ensure only the appropriate users and groups can access the files they need. If you need to add a new user group and use the "Replace..." feature just once on "C:\Documents", you will destroy all the customization on these child subfolders and files, an reduce them all to homogeneity.

Unfortunately, there's no real way around this with Windows NT's conventional inheritance scheme. In practice, it means that changes to the directory structure that require using the "Replace..." features must be done many more times, deeper within the directory structure, to avoid unwanted changes. The limitations of this system led to Microsoft's creating the more advanced dynamic inheritance system in Windows 2000 (which is also available to Windows NT 4.0 users who install Service Pack 4.)

Next: Dynamic Permission Inheritance and Advanced Inheritance Control

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