Fixing it When Windows Breaks

Microsoft executives must be among the most thick-skinned individuals on the planet. All those corporate IT directors going to all the Microsoft conferences and junkets, all of them complaining how much time the support staff spend failing to fix problems with Windows and how the other directors in their companies complain to them how much time their staff spend not working because their Windows PC’s are broken. Every single version of it.

So this time around, Microsoft has built a suite of tools for the IT support crew to try to keep the Windows 7 beast running. Or at least try to fix it when it breaks. And in a corporate environment, it’s still going to break…
MS has geared the support tools to a few keys areas.

  • providing tools to make troubleshooting and resolving issues faster
  • increased automation with a souped-up scripting environment

How?
The souped-up scripting engine is Windows Powershell 2.0, which apparently can “enable… IT professionals to automate almost any aspect of system management.” It will even automate the creation and configuration of Group Policy objects, which is how organizations with a complex Group Policy structure get to ‘simplify’ policy definition. And you still have to be a NASA rocket scientist with Asberger’s and OCD to get past page one of the tutorial.

Powershell’s second string is to create customized Windows Troubleshooting Packs, intended to resolve issues common to an individual corporate environment. The idea is that support staff and application developers can script solutions that end-users can run to diagnose and resolve problems with in-house applications. To quote MS “…users who solve their own problem using the Windows Troubleshooting Platform don’t need to call the support center.”

But when they do (and they do), there’s the Problem Steps Recorder, which captures click-by-click screenshots showing what user actions led to the problem. Easily reproducible problems means quick diagnosis and resolution.

Windows 7 includes significant enhancements to Group Policy, which IT departments use to centrally manage their Windows machines. AppLocker (I know the name makes some kind of sense, but it’s not ‘hip’ and it’s still hideous) is there to restrict which applications users can run, thereby providing a more managed and secure desktop environment. It is intended to support more flexible rules that can apply to any version of an application. It won’t stop Joe-user ringing the help-desk when they can’t run something that worked under XP.

Group Policy Preferences define default settings for users, which you can overlay on standard Windows 7 deployment images without customising the software install. This is ‘soft’ software configuration that allegdly users can update. Group Policy is now the way to enforce BitLocker encryption, even for removable storage devices such as USB flash drives.

The Resource Monitor and Reliability Monitor I can actually believe will provide hard evidence for certain problems, so that the support desk (sorry, IT professionals) can quickly identify which processes are causing problems, which system changes might have caused them – and therefore who to offload the support tickets for second-line support.

Where it gets interesting is the update to the System Restore utility which attempts to list which applications and drivers will be affected before a restore point is activated.

When All Else Fails
Windows Recovery Environment is installed by default so that it can be accessed in an emergency or when a Windows 7 DVD is not available. This strikes me as eminently sensible, and real-world practical; a touch defeatist perhaps, it reminds me of the days of Mac OS before X, when the fastest solution to most problems was to wipe the Mac and reinstall to factory defaults.

Updates to System Restore enable users or IT professionals to see which applications and drivers will be affected before a restore point is activated. Windows Recovery Environment is installed by default so that it can be accessed in an emergency or when a Windows 7 DVD is not available.

Laptops and tablets are now managed through DirectAccess, which pushes updated Group Policy settings on a regular basis as well as providing an updated file syncing service and software updates. DirectAccess enforces the connection to the support area of the corporate network every time the computer connects to the Internet. There’ll be support calls and complaints from the road-warriors over that one.

Altogether, this is Microsoft’s sop to the IT support department, the declared goal, “…reduce desktop support costs by making IT professionals more productive.” Which it might. My suspicion is it will do this at the expense of every other staff-members sanity. But then, I’m old-school, I’ve seen it from both sides and as far as I know, very few support departments have the requisite number of PhD’s to get this lot to work. AJS

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