More on Recovering Access to a SQL Server Instance

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A few years ago, I wrote a tip here showing how to recover access to an instance of SQL Server: Recover access to a SQL Server instance

The problem isn't that I wrote the article. The underlying problem is that a user can't manage a local instance of SQL Server, even if they are a local administrator. This could be for a variety of reasons, including any combination of:

  • Did not add themselves as an administrator during setup
  • Added themselves as an administrator, but then removed themselves (perhaps inadvertently) from the instance or from the sysadmin role
  • A different Windows user, now unavailable, was the one that was added to sysadmin role during setup

If the local Windows account can't administer the SQL Server instance, you could always use sa, right? Well, not necessarily. You may have:

  • Created an sa password, but forgot it, or the sa account is disabled
  • Set up an sa password, but now SQL Server is configured to run with Windows authentication only
  • Set it up as Windows authentication only from the start

The solution I originally published used a sysinternals tool from Microsoft called PsExec.  PsExec works by impersonating the built-in NT AUTHORITY\SYSTEM login which, in certain versions of SQL Server, has automatic sysadmin rights on the instance. In more modern versions (2012 and above), however, NT AUTHORITY\SYSTEM is no longer in the sysadmin role. This is where the problem comes in. So while PsExec will work against, say, SQL Server 2008 (or an instance upgraded from 2008), how do we solve this problem on new instances of 2012, 2014, 2016, and beyond?


Argenis Fernandez (@DBArgenis) discovered a method that takes advantage of the fact that the Windows accounts for specific services are now in the sysadmin group, even if NT AUTHORITY\SYSTEM is no longer there. And while PsExec can't be used to impersonate these other SIDs, there is another clever way to use them to pass commands into SQL Server.

Reproducing the Actual Problem

You can skip past this section if you don't want the background.

To reproduce the problem you are probably already experiencing, I installed an instance of SQL Server 2016 Express Edition, set it to use Windows authentication only, and intentionally left myself out of the sysadmin role. I initially thought you could do this inadvertently using a Next > Next > Next install, but the UI doesn't let you continue without adding at least one Windows account to the sysadmin role:

Database Engine Configuration Screen

It might be possible to bypass this validation with an unattended installation, and of course that Windows account could later be evicted from the sysadmin role, the instance, or even the domain. What I did here was simply add a different account than the one I was currently using - I was installing using Gordie\Administrator, but I created a throw-away account called GORDIE\floob, and added that account to the sysadmin role instead. You can see this from my installation summary screen:

Administrators group only contains GORDIE\floob

Even though I didn't add myself to the instance, I was able to connect implicitly (through Builtin\Users):

Object Explorer - Implicit connection allowed through Builtin\Users

(The only logins I can see, though, are the disabled SA account, and Builtin\Users.)

And I was even able to add myself as an explicit login:


But when I tried to add myself to sysadmin, I couldn't:


Msg 15151, Level 16, State 1
Cannot alter the server role 'sysadmin', because it does not exist or you do not have permission.

And in fact you will quickly find that even a local or domain administrator can't get a lot done here, if they didn't add themselves to the sysadmin role during setup.

Now, The Fix

Again, with full credit to Argenis, here is how I can recover access to my instance. His solution relies on the fact that newer versions of SQL Server use service SIDs that are somewhat "vulnerable."

First, let's look at the accounts that are vulnerable (to verify this yourself, you'll have to run this on an instance where you do have elevated privileges):

  FROM sys.server_principals AS p
  INNER JOIN sys.server_role_members AS r
  ON p.principal_id = r.member_principal_id
  WHERE r.role_principal_id = 3

On a default installation of SQL Server 2016, you should see the following four results (though the last one, belonging to SQL Server Agent, won't be present on SQL Server Express):

NT Service\MSSQL$<instancename>
NT SERVICE\SQLAgent$<instancename>

As a regular user, you won't see those logins in the results, but you'll have to trust me that they're there (unless they have been sabotaged).

But what can we do with this information? I'm cheating a little bit here, because I already know the answer. I'm not interested in messing with the Winmgmt service, and I obviously don't want to touch SQL Server or SQL Server Agent. This leaves SQLWriter as something to explore, so let's take a look at the properties of the service. Launch services.msc, scroll to the SQL Server VSS Writer service, and right-click for the properties:

SQL Server VSS Writer Service Properties

This solution will involve stopping the service, so you may as well do that now. The important thing to note here is the folder location of the sqlwriter.exe application.

Now, about the sqlwriter.exe file: this is associated with the SQL Server VSS Writer service, which uses NT SERVICE\SQLWriter, which in turn has inherent sysadmin privileges on the local instances of SQL Server (as shown in the above query against sys.server_role_members).

Well, what if we shut down the service, and replace that sqlwriter.exe file with a file we can use to pass commands into SQL Server? Say, sqlcmd.exe? Go ahead, and stop the service. (Keep in mind that if you are using any 3rd party backup solutions that rely on the service, you should suspend their activities as well.) Now, copy sqlcmd.exe from the following location (you may have to change 140 to something else, depending on the highest version of SQL Server you have installed):

C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\Client SDK\ODBC\140\Tools\Binn\

Paste that file into the folder alongside sqlwriter.exe, which should be:

C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\90\Shared

Now, rename the sqlwriter.exe file to sqlwriter.exe.old, then rename sqlcmd.exe to sqlwriter.exe. You will get prompts like this one:

Rename Prompt for sqlwriter.exe

The final configuration change involves modifying the registry to slightly change the command that the service uses to call the executable. Open regedit.exe and navigate to the following location:


Initially, the ImagePath is specified as:

"C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\90\Shared\sqlwriter.exe"

Since that exe file is actually now sqlcmd.exe, we can pass in arguments! For example, we can tell it to connect to a specific instance, using Windows authentication, and run some arbitrary command, like adding my Windows account to the sysadmin role:

-S .\instancename -E -Q "ALTER SERVER ROLE sysadmin ADD MEMBER [GORDIE\Administrator];"

So, right-click the ImagePath key, choose Modify, append the command, and click OK. Here's how it should look (enlarge):

Registry Command to send arbitrary code to SQL Server

The final step is to start the SQL Server VSS Writer service, which will fail, and that's okay. Windows can't start sqlcmd.exe as a service, but it is trivial to verify that the command was sent on to SQL Server, and that my Windows account is now part of the sysadmin server role. It will be one of the names now returned by this query (and I will suddenly be able to see other sysadmin members):

  FROM sys.server_principals AS p
  INNER JOIN sys.server_role_members AS r
  ON p.principal_id = r.member_principal_id
  WHERE r.role_principal_id = 3;

This looks on the surface to be a security hole but, in order to swap out the files in that folder, you have to be an administrator on the box where the instance resides. And in a lot of ways, if someone is a Windows administrator, you should consider them the owner of the instances and services on that machine anyway (see this other post from Argenis for more on that).

What else can I fix?

Some other commands you may want to run this way, depending on what issue you want to fix:

-- to add any login, or local administrators, to sysadmin

-- add local administrators as a login
CREATE LOGIN [Builtin\Administrators] FROM WINDOWS;
ALTER SERVER ROLE sysadmin ADD MEMBER [Builtin\Administrators];

-- to grant specific permissions without granting sysadmin
USE master;

-- to allow a SQL auth login to impersonate a higher-priv login:

-- to allow remote connections or dedicated administrator connections:
EXEC sys.sp_configure @configname = 'remote access', @configvalue = 1;
EXEC sys.sp_configure @configname = 'remote admin connections', @configvalue = 1;

-- to increase max server memory or disable resource governor:
EXEC sys.sp_configure @configname = 'show advanced options', @configvalue = 1;
EXEC sys.sp_configure @configname = 'max server memory', @configvalue = 2147483647;
EXEC sys.sp_configure @configname = 'show advanced options', @configvalue = 0;

-- to disable a logon trigger:
-- if this is the problem *and* it prevents you from disabling, you could 
-- change registry entry to have the service connect as DAC, using -A
-- But that only works if DAC hasn't been disabled

-- to change the default database for any login
-- (a common problem is login issues due to an offline or removed database)

-- to set Windows auth only
-- restart of SQL Server service required
EXEC master.sys.xp_instance_regwrite 

-- to set Mixed mode (Windows auth + sql auth)
-- restart of SQL Server service required
EXEC master.sys.xp_instance_regwrite 

-- to enable the SA account

-- to set a new (strong) password for SA:
ALTER LOGIN sa WITH PASSWORD = '<enterStrongPasswordHere>';

-- to set a weak password for SA (not recommended, but because you will ask):

You'll just have to change the registry each time so that a new command is sent, and then try to start the service again. You could append a whole slew of commands, but that single-line entry in the registry editor is not exactly easy to work with.


Argenis has come up with a great workaround to recovering access to an instance, which only requires an outage of the VSS Writer service (other solutions require some level of SQL Server outage). I hope this comes in handy if you should find yourself locked out of an instance of SQL Server 2012, 2014, 2016, or beyond.

IMPORTANT! Please don't forget to rename the replaced sqlwriter.exe back to sqlcmd.exe, and sqlwriter.exe.old back to sqlwriter.exe, and also fix the registry, in case you need to later use the VSS Writer service.

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Aaron Bertrand Aaron Bertrand (@AaronBertrand) is a passionate technologist with industry experience dating back to Classic ASP and SQL Server 6.5. He is editor-in-chief of the performance-related blog,, and also blogs at

This author pledges the content of this article is based on professional experience and not AI generated.

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Comments For This Article

Thursday, February 25, 2021 - 10:39:15 AM - Rob D Back To Top (88300)
Thanks Aaron and Argenis. I've inherited some Instances and this technique allowed me to gain access without needing a (Database Engine) outage.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 10:20:27 AM - Daniel Johnson Back To Top (88291)
This technique worked beautifully! I haven't found this anywhere else on the internet. Thank you for sharing.

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 12:50:44 PM - Seagull Back To Top (85660)

You saved my life, thank you so much!

FYI - there is a minor mistake in your post that might confuse some people - it's -S .\instancename -E -Q "ALTER SERVER ROLE sysadmin ADD MEMBER [GORDIE\Administrator];"

(you missed a "SERVER" word)

Friday, August 16, 2019 - 1:55:03 PM - Scott Noyes Back To Top (82084)

This worked once I also copied the sqlcmd.rll file from the resources folder to sqlwriter.rll

Adding -o "c:\results.txt" option to the registry value lets you see the results of your attempts to start the service.

Thursday, May 30, 2019 - 5:14:09 PM - Bill Fritz Back To Top (81265)

Aaron, this is a fantastic post. Pure GOLD! Thanks to Argenis for coming up with the workaround and you for making it so easy to understand and sharing it with the rest of us. 

I've always said that if you give someone physical access or Windows Admin access to the server you are giving them complete access to everything on the box. Some can stomp the foot and say "no" that isn't true. But as a DBA I've inherited servers where I didn't have access to the SQL Instance and simply shut down the sql engine and copied the databases to another server and attached them. Not difficult along with various other ways you've touch on. It's not "hacking". It's life as a DBA. We have to get the job done and you've made it a bit easier because there are SO many reasons a legitimate DBA needs to gain access and sometimes doesn't have it. Keep the non-legitimate folks out by limiting access to what is needed.

I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and insight. Keep up the great work!

Thank you!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 - 4:45:43 PM - Diane Robey Back To Top (45790)

 Thank you Aaron and Argenis! I added a book mark for the next time I need this.


Monday, January 30, 2017 - 12:28:19 PM - Aaron Bertrand Back To Top (45733)


Just as a follow-up from Argenis on twitter, you don't have to rename sqlwriter.exe, you can just change the registry path to point to the latest sqlcmd.exe on your system, simplifying this solution quite a bit.

Sunday, January 29, 2017 - 10:32:13 PM - Tim Plas Back To Top (45722)

Although I think I'll request the folks at DBATOOLS.IO to look into incorporating Argenis / Aaron's methodology, perhaps as just one other option, into Reset-SqlAdmin. Because sometimes it would be _SO_ handy to do an access reset without taking the SQL service down. (Security implications bother me a little, but the capability is there.)

Sunday, January 29, 2017 - 9:40:44 AM - Rob Back To Top (45711)


Of course you can use the Reset-SQLAdmin command in the dbatools module as well to make life easier by autoimating those steps ;-)

Saturday, January 28, 2017 - 2:00:19 PM - TIm Plas Back To Top (45685)

 If you're willing to take downtime (SQL restart), & have Windows local-admin access, the Reset-SqlAdmin command from  provides a very user-friendly way to get admin access to a SQL instance.   --but I really like having the option to accomplish this with no SQL downtime, with your approach.


Friday, January 27, 2017 - 12:06:41 PM - Aaron Bertrand Back To Top (45634)


@Saravanan I disagree. As I stated in the article, this method is only viable for people who already have local administrator access on the physical machine where SQL Server resides. If you don't want non-DBAs to perform this type of operation, don't make them administrators. You can take this method away all you like, but there will be others. Like I repeat over and over again to customers, assume that a local administrator owns everything on the box.

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 12:02:19 PM - SQLPRODDBA Back To Top (45633)

 Excellent work Aaron and Argenis!


Friday, January 27, 2017 - 10:49:30 AM - Saravanan Thambidurai Back To Top (45626)


Its hacking.MS should fix this. Its a serious bug.Non DBA's can follow this steps to login to the SQL server.

Need to follow the MS recommened steps "" to recover access as stated by Jean.

My fingers crossed for MS to fix this.

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 9:38:38 AM - Jean-Philippe George Back To Top (45623)

Aaron, I read to quicly, and missed the "don't need to restart the service" part. Which is very, very nice. Thanks !

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 9:02:10 AM - Aaron Bertrand Back To Top (45621)

Jean-Philippe, yes, that's true, and works fine for local or non-critical instances of SQL Server. However, as I explained in the original tip, we don't always have the luxury of taking the service down.

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 7:44:46 AM - Hiren Patel Back To Top (45615)

 Awesome article Aaron, thank you and Argenis.


Friday, January 27, 2017 - 5:37:51 AM - Jean-Philippe George Back To Top (45613)

Thanks for the tip.

You can also restart Sql Server in single user mode. Then any member of the computer's local Administrators group can then connect to the instance of SQL Server as a member of the sysadmin fixed server role.

Explained here :

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