System-wide registry is mapped to the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE (HKLM) root key in memory.
Associated files on disk, under <SYSTEMROOT>\System32\config\: SYSTEM, SOFTWARE, SECURITY, SAM.

Per user registry is mapped to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER (HKCU) root key in memory.
Associated files on disk:

The Windows Registry is a Windows feature to store low-level settings, for the operating system and for applications (that opt to use the registry), in the form of system-wide or per-users hierarchical databases or hives.

A registry hive is a group of keys, subkeys, and values in the registry, with supporting file(s) on disk. Registry hives are loaded in memory upon system boot or user logon from their associated files on disk.

Before being written / committed to a file on disk, registry modifications can be written to Registry Transaction logs (notably if the hives cannot be written to directly due to locking). Transaction logs are files named, and stored in the same directory, as their corresponding registry hives. Such as SYSTEM.LOG1 and SYSTEM.LOG2 for the SYSTEM registry file.

System-wide registry hives

The system-wide registry is mapped to the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE (HKLM) root key in memory.

The following notable system-wide root subkeys are defined:

  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM. File on disk: %SystemRoot%\System32\config\SYSTEM.

  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE. File on disk: %SystemRoot%\System32\config\SOFTWARE.

  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SECURITY. File on disk: %SystemRoot%\System32\config\SECURITY.

  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SAM. File on disk: %SystemRoot%\System32\config\SAM.

  • HKEY_USERS, contains all the actively loaded user profile registry hives on the computer. The .DEFAULT key is populated from the %SystemRoot%\Users\Default\NTUSER.DAT file. File on disk: users’ NTUSER.dat and UsrClass.dat files (of logon users).

The SYSTEM, SOFTWARE, SECURITY, and SAM registry hives used to be backed up periodically (every 10 days by default) under the %SystemRoot%\System32\config\RegBack folder by the RegIdleBackup scheduled task. Starting with the Windows 10 operating system, this mechanism is no longer in use and no registry hive backups are stored under the RegBack folder.

Per-user registry hives

The user specific registry is mapped to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER (HKCU) root key in memory:

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER. File on disk: %SystemDrive%:\Users\<USERNAME>\NTUSER.dat.

  • HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Classes. File on disk: %SystemDrive%:\Users\<USERNAME>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\UsrClass.dat.

  • HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, which define the programs and file extensions association. Mapped to the keys HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes, for default settings, and HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Classes, for user specific settings that override the default settings.


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