Using layering for a customer's Windows 7 deployment

VARs can save their customers from headaches and gain margins by layering Windows 7 configurations and applications on top of a single machine image, and offer automation services.

In the prehistoric days of Windows deployment, having all the configurations, applications and updates required

to convert hardware to a fully-functional desktop, required deploying the monolithic image.

Monolithic images used to be popular because they simplified new machine configuration during an operating system (OS) upgrade. The tools available to VARs at the time were limited to capturing and deploying images and weren’t developed enough to manage following deployment. Unless a client was willing to spend a lot more for a systems management solution, after an image was deployed it was on its own.

Thankfully for VARs and customers alike, times have changed, and desktop configuration management tools have improved. Even the free Windows management tools are mature enough to reasonably manifest automated changes once images are deployed.

Tool maturation and a change in mindset drove IT away from its monolithic image roots and toward “the layered approach”. I discussed this layered approach in a column for Microsoft’s TechNet Magazine back in 2009.  Pay particular attention to Figure 1, which depicts the layers such as applications, OS updates and configuration changes and the technologies that manifest change to those layers are laid out.

Benefits of the layered approach
Layering eschews the former approach where everything went on the image for a much more elegant and streamlined approach. With layering, the deployed OS is relatively basic in nature and may be installed with a few updates or a common employee application. But the core principle behind the layered approach’s value proposition is that configurations are “layered” on top of that standard image after the initial deployment is completed.

Why embrace layering? Because it offers your customers greater OS deployment flexibility and eases post-deployment management. With layering, the configurations each layer is responsible for can also be adjusted or reconfigured at any point. This ensures that the automated deployment system evolves along with its users’ needs, without having to recreate images, a time-consuming process. You can make life easier for customers with dozens, or even hundreds, of individual OS images by reducing those totals to one or two.

Layering: Not for the impatient
A central problem with layering lies in its perceived complexity. This is particularly the case with smaller customers who operate in a reactive or chaotic mode most of the time. The investment in creating such a layered structure is far greater than their resources can handle. These customers suffer under an immediacy problem: Their culture doesn’t allow them to enjoy the work-reducing benefits of full OS deployment automation because they can’t afford the required upfront time investment.

Further, the required level of integration to create a working system out of these individual layers may also be greater than the skill set that these customers possess. If a customer’s IT staff is forced into a mode of always “clicking on things,” they rarely can make time to focus on “thinking about things – they may want to consider automation.

Here’s where your value proposition truly comes into play. Automating Windows deployments has a large learning curve when time is a precious commodity, so most IT professionals recognize the huge value, but can’t see past the effort in getting there. Therefore, your assistance presents a pathway to that automation value, merely because your consultants can focus specifically on getting integrations in place.

These integrations span the range of layers, including packaging applications for automated deployment, incorporating configuration control to updates, locking down applications and OSes through policy control and tailoring driver databases to facilitate single-image deployment.

Successful VARs who are attracting business for these practices recognize that the layered approach isn’t just for Windows OS deployment. Embracing layering pays dividends throughout the entire desktop lifecycle, including future software updates, future configuration changes and future lockdowns. All of these can be easily deployed to existing systems (in addition to those deployed later on) by incorporating them into the appropriate layer.

It’s time your customers threw away all their dozens or hundreds of OS images, in favor of a single-image approach. With a single image, configuration controlled via multiple layers on top, much of the IT management busy work falls away. This gets them over the immediacy problem and frees them to continue automating into the future.

About the author
Greg Shields, MVP, vExpert, is a partner with Concentrated Technology. Get more of Greg's tips and tricks at www.concentratedtech.com
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This was first published in September 2011

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