‘Manual IT’ or automation: Getting new laptops ready for use

When our own business needed a few new laptops recently, we took the easy way out: I simply went to Staples and bought them. Since our business is of the smaller variety, and being “the IT guy” who handles this kind of stuff for our business, I then proceeded to “customize” the laptops by deleting pre-installed crapware and configuring various security and privacy settings in the operating system. I then installed the standard applications we use for our business, tested everything to make sure it worked, and handed them out.

Yes, I know doing “manual IT” like this is pretty menial, but it’s either that or play Solitaire.

Not that I’m unfamiliar with Windows imaging and deployment tools. After all, I did write a 29-part series of articles for WindowsNetworking.com a while back on the topic of Deploying Windows 7. And I was Series Editor for a couple of dozen eBooks on System Center published by Microsoft Press, which you can download for free from this page on the Microsoft Virtual Academy. So it’s not like I don’t know how to provision, deploy, and migrate Windows operating systems. It’s just that I sometimes find it more relaxing to do a few hours of mindless menial work instead of rebuilding images and writing scripts.

And it’s probably a bit more productive than playing Solitaire.

When manual IT won’t fly

Provisioning laptops takes planning and skillOf course, with larger businesses the manual approach to doing IT won’t work. Whether you’re the sysadmin for a company that has 50 seats or 5,000 seats, you’ll definitely need to use automation if you want to have a life outside of office hours. And if you’re a consultant or systems integrator that works with customers who have dozens of seats or more, you’ll still need to use some form of automation if you want to earn a decent hourly rate for your work. To learn what the bigger fish are doing in their larger ponds, I talked recently with George Simos, an IT pro colleague and friend of mine based in Greece. George has been working in the IT Industry for over 20 years in many roles including leading IT projects for various organizations. He is a former two-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award for his work with Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, and he has been active as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) in the IT Pro track since 2011. So George definitely knows his stuff.

George points out that provisioning laptops really isn’t any different from provisioning desktops. “Laptops share common components with desktops but in a smaller factor.” The difference comes, however, in what’s typically packaged with them. With laptops, George says, “Usually, the vendor provides a customized windows image loaded with drivers, needed software, needless software (bloatware), and sometimes with non-full versions of software [trialware].” Here’s where you need to start thinking carefully, however.

Separate what’s needed from what’s not needed

George suggests that a good starting place with laptop provisioning is to categorize the above types of software as either needed or not needed. “Drivers are essential for the correct operation of the laptop’s components and devices (for example, fingerprint readers, webcams, storage card readers, and so on). Unfortunately, some drivers are packaged in Setup files with accompanying software that is usually not needed, but this needs to be evaluated by the responsible person or team that will be deploying the operating system.”

What about other software that the laptop vendor preinstalls? That can be needed or not needed. “Examples of needed software may include some system applications that the vendor provides and that they tell you are essential to the operation and maintenance of the device,” George says. “However, experience has often showed us that such software can have low-usage patterns, which leads us to categorize them as ‘not needed.’ Again, however, the responsible person or team will have to evaluate the inclusion of such applications in the operating system deployment.” George also notes that there might be an overlap in functionality between vendor-supplied system applications and the standard software your organization uses for managing systems.

As for trial software that the laptop vendor provides, George says, “We usually ignore them. Some vendors have a bad habit of preinstalling trial software on their devices, but these are usually not needed and may overlap with the standard software the organization uses.” In other words, that trial version of Skype for Business should be removed from the laptop image if your company already uses a different online meeting and collaboration solution from another vendor.

The clean-slate approach

Signature Edition devices run clean versions of Windows

While the approach we used for our own small business was to buy fully-bloated laptops and then remove anything we didn’t want or need running on them, George points out that larger businesses often take a different approach. “When dealing with the issue of what’s needed/not needed, some companies make the decision to provide clean-slate laptops such as the Signature Edition laptops that are available for purchase from the Microsoft Store. These literally provide a clean Windows experience by having only drivers and the operating system components installed. For those interested here is a list of some of the Signature Edition laptops that are current available in the USA from the Microsoft Store.

Windows imaging basics

Administrators who are familiar with Windows imaging technologies for deploying desktop computers should have no difficulty applying their skills and knowledge to the laptop arena. “Starting from Windows Vista,” George says, “the issues of deploying Windows to different CPU architectures [AMD/Intel] have been completely ironed out so we don’t need to maintain different images for them any longer.”  George notes that the core of the Windows operating system are the Setup files in the medium used — typically ISO files — to prepare a solution or install a single device. Nothing else is needed apart from that the basic setup. In addition, many drivers are already included in every new build of Windows including incremental updates of the same Windows version. “You want the process of delivering a laptop to be dynamic, error-free, repeatable, and predictable in order to provide a well-installed system for the end user,” George says.

Image-based deployment of Windows can achieve just that. As technology has advanced, we now have tools at our disposal that allow us to create a single clean image of Windows that has all the latest updates incorporated into it and which provides the following:

  • Automatic partitioning
  • Support for legacy BIOS or UEFI BIOS
  • Recent Windows updates that may have not been yet included in the image
  • Automatic and predictable driver installation for as many devices as you have in your organization.
  • Additional software deployment during the O/S deployment
  • O/S customizations and cleanup

George says that the latest tools and technologies available allow us to have all of these things in automated form “without having to push a button during the deployment. In addition, your golden image can be easily updated in an automated fashion periodically, for example every three months.”

Tools for imaging laptops

Assessment and Deployment Kit from the Microsoft Download Center

The tools you can use for imaging new Windows laptops are the same ones your organization is now using for Windows desktop deployment. George highlighted three of these tools for us.

  • Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) provides a framework to build a dynamic deployment solution. It leverages numerous scripts to achieve this “under the hood” and can easily be extended with your own scripts. It is actively maintained by Microsoft and is a remarkable toolkit, and most of all it’s free!
  • System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) is the solution that enterprises will want to use for managing all kinds of devices including desktops, laptops, tablets, and various mobile devices. Operating System Deployment (OSC) is a core component of SCCM and uses the same Task Sequences that MDT does, but OSD also has some enhanced features concerning the solutions framework. OSD can also be augmented by MDT with additional Task Sequences, Steps and Actions through the User Driven Installation (UDI) feature that is available when MDT is integrated with SCCM.
  • Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK) is a set of tools from Microsoft that are essential to build deployment solutions using MDT and SCCM. In fact, the ADK is actually a prerequisite of these other platforms.

Support for the tools

What good are tools if the vendor doesn’t properly support them? We all know of Microsoft products that have come and gone over the years, but George thinks that things are different when it comes to the imaging tools described above. “The great thing about the aforementioned tools is the wealth of available support available for them. Microsoft provides good documentation that is complemented by an enormous community of IT pros who tinker with them to provide mind-blowing solutions to common problems.” I chimed in at this point to recommend my own favorite MDT blogger Michael Niehaus, but I’ll refrain from recommending any SCCM blogs because there are just too many of them.

As for learning to use these tools, George says, “The investment in learning to use these tools is not especially enormous as there are many books available to help you get started and not just get the gist of it. Your investment will surely pay off in the short-term when the automation of deployment of devices including laptops shows its value.”

That’s certainly a bigger payoff than the time I’ve invested playing Solitaire at work!

Photo credits: Microsoft

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