Windows 7 Catch-up: Troubleshooting Packs

Advanced and Customized Troubleshooting

Windows breaks. It’s a fact. That’s one reason why IT Support teams (Help Desk to you and me) are always busy. That’s the way it is, complex software breaks and the Windows environment has more layers and components than a Saturn-5 rocket. That’s a highly subjective metaphor, I haven’t counted. Every corporate executive wants to reduce costs and increase productivity. That means every IT director wants his team to diagnose and resolve problems quickly with as little intervention as possible…

Microsoft wants the IT departments to keep buying Windows operating system and application licenses, which is why it has thrown in the Windows Troubleshooting Platform as a sweetener to the IT directors. Windows Troubleshooting Packs are a collection of PowerShell scripts that attempt to diagnose a problem and, with user approval, try solve the problem. The idea is that if you can write an answer file to fix the problem, then you should be able to produce a diagnostic script to find the fault.

A new component to Windows 7, Windows Troubleshooting Platform has two key components:

  • Windows Troubleshooting Packs
  • Windows Troubleshooting Pack Builder

Windows Troubleshooting Packs
Support staff can invoke Troubleshooting Packs remotely and use Group Policy settings to limit users to diagnosing, but not fixing, problems. Administrators can run Troubleshooting Packs while logged on to the local computer or remotely from across the network, making unattended maintenance much easier (in theory).

Troubleshooting Packs also can be manually invoked by users from the Help and Support Center or from the Action Center. Troubleshooting can also be initiated from within applications, allowing companies to include Windows 7 diagnostic tools as a feature of in-house applications.

Troubleshooting Packs can also perform in-line maintenance of specific Windows features, for example, run automated maintenance on a scheduled basis, cleaning up cached and temporary files, error-check a hard disk or apply patches.

Corporate editions of Windows 7 include 20 standard Troubleshooting Packs intended to address more than a hundred problem types. The standard set was derived from the top ten categories of Microsoft support calls, such as Power Management, Application Compatibility, Networking and Sound.

Troubleshooting Packs can diagnose surprisingly complex problems, even those caused by multiple error conditions, prompting the user with actions to resolve each of them.

The standard Windows 7 Troubleshooting Packs break down into categories such as hardware and devices, networking, Internet use, performance, media playback and include:

  • Aero, tackling problems affecting Aero display, animations and effects
  • Sound playback
  • Sound Recording
  • Printing
  • Performance, to improve overall speed and performance
  • General Maintenance, that is, clean up of unused files and short-cuts and other maintenance tasks
  • Power Management, to adjust power settings to improve mobile battery life or reduce desktop power consumption
  • HomeGroup Networking, shared files and folders in a home group
  • Hardware and Devices, troubleshoot problems with hardware and devices
  • Web browsing, tackles problems preventing users browsing the Web – but only with the Internet Explorer browser.
  • Internet Safety, adjusts settings to improve browser safety in Internet Explorer
  • Windows Media Player Library, tackles problems preventing music and movies playing in the Windows Media Player Library
  • Windows Media Player Setting, there’s an effective factory reset for Windows Media player
  • DVD Playback, tackle problems that prevent playing a DVD in Windows Media Player

There’s another slew of networking and connection troubleshooters;

  • Connection to a workplace using DirectAccess
  • Connect to your workplace network over the Internet
  • Connection to a shared folder
  • Access shared files and folders on other computers
  • Incoming connections to the computer
  • Allow other computers to connect to your computer
  • Network adapters, troubleshoot Ethernet, wireless, or other network adapters
  • Internet connections, either to the Internet or to a particular Web site
  • Program Compatibility Troubleshooter, to troubleshoot a program that doesn’t work in Windows 7.

Windows Troubleshooting Pack Builder
The Windows Troubleshooting Pack Builder is included with the Windows Software Development Kit (SDK). This is a development kit that includes a graphical tool for support and development staff to building further Windows Troubleshooting Packs. It uses the PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment as the development shell, which is fully featured to say the least, a pocket version of Visual Studio.

Deployment of Troubleshooting Packs is via Group Policy Preferences directly to machines in the inventory (the local hard drive), or to a central file server.

Microsoft is hosting the Windows Online Troubleshooting Service, which provides Windows 7 users with new and updated Troubleshooting Packs. While this allows unattended diagnosis of newly discovered problems, this could be a source of complications, so this service can be disabled centrally through Group Policy.

Where this gets smart is in the use of securely signed packs using certificates issued by a trusted Certification Authority (CA) which enables Group Policy settings to run Troubleshooting Packs only from trusted publishers. This follows the secure signing route for applications and websites.

Besides simplifying troubleshooting for end-users, administrators can use Troubleshooting Packs to speed complex diagnostic and testing procedures by running them interactively from a command prompt or silently using an answer file. In such cases, administrators can run Troubleshooting Packs while logged on to the local computer or remotely from across the network.

I find all this Microsoft New-speak gets denser and more cloying with every generation of technology released. Microsoft has invented a telephone directory thickness of new product nomenclature to describe all this stuff, seemingly in common language, but put enough of it together and instant narcolepsy is the result.

While it’s a good – and long overdue – idea, at the practical end, this whole troubleshooting platform assumes that support and development teams have sufficient grounding in application development, real-time systems and object-oriented techniques to build custom troubleshooting packs. Without that, these glorified Power Shell scripts could run forever or do more damage than they fix. No doubt Microsoft training will be running some very expensive courses to fill those skills gaps. AJS

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