Symlinks is short for Symbolic Links – it’s a link leading to a “real” file or folder somewhere else. This might sound an awful lot like your ordinary shortcut in Windows; a Windows shortcut, however, is not a symlink.
A Windows shortcut is a file – a tiny one – that contains information about where it leads to. It’s easier to handle and doesn’t depend on the file system, which is why it exists in the first place.
A Symbolic Link goes deeper – it is a link, present within the filesystem itself; the link can then point to a real folder or file elsewhere on the filesystem.
A symbolic link, then, is more akin to a hyperlink. On the other hand, a shortcut is a file with the link inside it.
Every major operating system has inbuilt support for symlinks – including Windows – but because symlinks depend on the underlying filesystem, the support is required on the filesystem-level as well.
Microsoft primarily uses NTFS while installing any version of Windows, and the NTFS filesystem has supported symlinks since Windows Vista.
However, while the support for symlinks was added in Windows Vista; developers had to use a command prompt with administrative privileges to create or modify symlinks.
Developers are creators too, after all; starting with Windows 10 Build 14972, symlinks can be created without the need of administrative privileges.
This will not only allow developers to create and modify symlinks without dealing with UAC prompts but also let development tools and projects use symlinks without being elevated.
Microsoft just pushed Build 14977 to Windows 10 Mobile, but the PC remains on Buil 14971; we will see this change appear for the production Windows 10 with the upcoming Creators Update, but Insiders on PC will be able to have a look at it soon enough.
There’s a tiny caveat, though: the reduced requirements to create or modify symlinks would only get applied if you enable the Developer Mode in Windows 10. It remains a challenge for regular applications to create or modify symlinks on a user’s computer.
There’s a reason for these restrictions on symlinks – in the wrong hands; they can cause havoc and damage a filesystem enough to make a recovery a very difficult challenge.
Creating or modifying a symlink isn’t very hard either – it’s only a command away – which is why it’s also a great playground for those with malicious intent. Symlinks are easy to deal with and can be deployed quite quickly to interfere with the target computer.
Windows stops all of this by requiring administrative privileges to create or modify symlinks, but after the Creators Update this restriction is removed for developers who want it gone – this leaves these tech-savvy developers vulnerable.
A majority of developers would know how to deal with these issues – but many won’t, which might cause a few troubles in the kingdom for the long run.
Hopefully, there will be an option to keep the stringent security even with Developer Mode enabled.
You can read more about why Microsoft is making this change on the official Microsoft blog.