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Using ConfigMgr for Windows 7 deployment

ConfigMgr is a valuable tool for VARs and customers. It includes the ability to remotely do a push or refresh deployment of Windows 7 on a PC.

When solution providers try to automate a customer’s Windows 7 deployment, they often have to wade through what I refer to it as the Deployment Alphabet Soup.

This soup is a somewhat ridiculous hodgepodge of three- and four-letter acronyms that represent the range of tools in Microsoft’s free tool development suite.

To be clear, earlier versions of the tools may have suffered from unbearable bugs that required an array of hacks, scripts and other fixes just to begin deployment. Today’s version is remarkably stable, and most of the command line trickery is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, the acronyms remain.

Here’s a quote in my book Automating Windows 7 Installation: A Definitive Guide for Desktop and VDI Environments that comes to mind every time IT professionals complain about the apparent complexity in Microsoft’s deployment solutions:

I should highlight how Microsoft’s overly-complicated documentation can really confuse people. Reading it, you might discover that Microsoft wants you to PXE your machine to WDS, using an Unattend.XML file built from WSIM in the WAIK after pre-staging your GUID inside the ADUC. Oh, and don’t forget MDT (formerly BDD!), who’s Deployment Workbench wraps around all this ridiculousness.

What’s interesting is that your customers can navigate around those acronyms, if they’re willing to spend a few dollars. More importantly, that investment also brings a comprehensive solution for managing and otherwise controlling virtually every aspect of their environment from a single, centralized source: Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager.

Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr) consolidates a wide range of configuration control capabilities into a tidy – albeit complex – package. Adding ConfigMgr as an offering or practice for your VAR business is something to consider carefully. While wildly useful once fully-realized, this application has long been known for its idiosyncrasies. You’ll want some very smart consultants with production ConfigMgr experience before you ever step in a customer’s door.

ConfigMgr vs. alphabet soup
With that said, ConfigMgr provides specific benefit over and above the alphabet soup for a range of customer use cases. If you are considering adding ConfigMgr to your operating system (OS) deployment offering as a step-up option, check out the following checklist for use cases where that sale makes sense:

Push deployments – Microsoft’s free tools are for the most part pull oriented in how they initiate an OS deployment. Without special coding and customization that goes beyond the intent of the product, an administrator must begin the deployment from the desktop itself.

Sometimes, however, customers see the need for push-oriented deployments. In this situation, an administrator can define which computers require updating. Once defined, the ConfigMgr agent already onboard those computers can receive the necessary instructions and begin the installation without a local presence. Push deployments are particularly useful when large numbers of computers require an OS deployment, and few (albeit highly skilled) administrator resources are available to manually begin the process.

Refresh deployments – Refreshes define those OS deployments where an existing OS must be “refreshed” with a brand new OS. These aren’t necessarily part of an OS upgrade, but can be in the situation where a user’s computer just needs a rebuild to eliminate some problem that troubleshooting activities can’t solve.

Refresh deployments are particularly well-suited to ConfigMgr because of the intrinsic automations that the platform contains. A well-implemented ConfigMgr solution will generally already know which applications have been installed to the user’s computer. That same solution has the tools necessary to automate the removal and later reintroduction of user state information during the refresh. These tools, in combination with ConfigMgr’s remote control technologies, give your customer’s help desk-savvy IT professional the means to triage a problem, and quickly determine if an automated refresh will “solve” the problem in less time than a full troubleshooting activity.

User-centric deployments – Taking automation one step further is ConfigMgr’s self-service ability. These user-centric deployments enable users to instruct the ConfigMgr solution to refresh their computer, without needing to involve the help desk at all. User-centric deployments obviously require a large amount of investment in automation, but pay incredible dividends in reducing help desk workload in troubleshooting nagging user problems.

Multisite deployments – ConfigMgr is designed to scale from just a few computers to literally tens of thousands (if not more). Its site-oriented structure means that individual sites can be distributed OS and application packages, as well as dynamic collections of computers from a central structure. Depending on design, individual sites may be able to add their own customizations as well. This site-oriented structure is a boon to multisite deployments, effectively spreading out the workload. They enable a central team to focus on creating the tools other sites use to facilitate their own OS deployment activities.

Desire for holistic management – Lastly are those customers who have matured to the point where they recognize the need and are ready for the investment in holistic management. Deploying OSes via a comprehensive platform such as ConfigMgr means automatically creating the automation infrastructure from which continuing operations and management can function from. ConfigMgr’s capabilities aren’t intended just for OS deployment – far from it. Its capabilities are designed as a fully-featured solution across the entirety of desktop lifecycle activities.

It‘s worth mentioning a second time that adding ConfigMgr to your list of offerings isn’t a task taken lightly. Any platform for systems management that’s intended to be “comprehensive” should insinuate that deep-level experience will be necessary to fully enjoy those features. That said, with the right consultants at your disposal and a customer base that’s ready to embrace measured change over chaos, platforms like Systems Center ConfigMgr are a perfect fit for your next engagement.

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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