Time to Stretch the Brain – PowerShell!

One of the consistent messages heard over the past few years, maybe more, regarding system administration and how things are done in the Microsoft world is that one must learn PowerShell.  It’s how things are done and will be done into the future.  I’ve never felt it to be that important or that urgent until recently.  I find myself in a rut, without purpose.  These are not good things.  To want to go to work every day one must have purpose or one develops as dislike for the job and that’s just not good.  How will I deal with this?  PowerShell.

I bought a copy of Learn Windows PowerShell in a Month of Lunches written by a guy named Don Jones.  I carried that book around with me for more than a month of lunches and only opened it a couple of times.  Then the second edition came out.  Ugh.  Have I had that book for that long? Apparently so.  Time to learn some PowerShell.  As an extra motivator I work with a Microsoft PowerShell MVP so maybe I can put a dent in this book.

TechNet is Done, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Today is the last day of my 90 day extension of my TechNet subscription with Microsoft.  It was a great service and offered a lot of value for anyone with their own lab setup at home.  Now that it’s done we still have access to a whole load of excellent resources.  Virtual instructor-led courses can be had at the Microsoft Virtual Academy.  You can get your hands on downloads to install and configure and test through the TechNet Evaluation Center.  Give a product a test drive by using TechNet Virtual Labs.  All good resources.  Not quite the same as the TechNet subs but then if you have the money and really need the resources you can always check out a MSDN subscription.

The Importance of Updates : Observing the Obvious

Just about everyone knows about “Patch Tuesday”.  Whether you’re in IT or just a casual user of technology we’re all exposed monthly to the System Tray icons popping up to tell us there are important updates that need to be applied or have been applied to your system and now you need to reboot or postpone for an hour/four hours.  But why bother?

Many of the updates that companies release these days are to plug some security hole.  That’s important.  Sure, maybe you don’t visit sketchy websites so you don’t think you’re system is ever going to be exposed to the “bad people” and that’s fair.  But in reality, if you have a network connected computer, any network, you run the risk of coming into contact with a machine that could potentially be infected or exposed or hosting processes up to no good.

In part you want to keep your systems up-to-date to protect yourself from problems but you also want to keep this current to protect yourself from others with problems.  And it’s not just operating system updates.  Just about everyone releases updates from time to time to correct issues, plug holes, or improve performance.  So why wouldn’t you update?

My own recent experience involved a small port extender device manufactured for a large vendor that was used at a client site.  The drivers for the device were the default drivers used when the devices were first installed in 2011.  After applying some operating system and application updates the device continued to work but now Outlook would crash each and every time it attempted to load.  Since the laptop worked just fine unplugged from the device, and the crash could be replicated on another matching laptop, I decided to look and see if newer drivers were available.  In fact there were and they were relatively recent, September 2014.  There were numerous revisions since 2011.  I updated the drivers and presto chango everything worked just fine again.

This is but a single example of many that should encourage everyone to maintain up-to-date systems whether for work or for home.  We do ourselves a favour and we do our part to keep the neighbourhood clean as well.

Stuff Made by Smart People to Help Make Your Life Easier – Part Four

Have you had enough yet?  How about some Right Click Tools?  How about some more Right Click Tools?  These are cool additions for the Configuration Manager console but consider this before you install them in their default state.  Do you want to provide the full set of tools to anyone who has access to the Configuration Manager console?  Maybe, maybe not.  These are powerful tool sets but in most cases probably go beyond what you would ever need.  Fortunately, you can edit the underlying structure of the tool sets to remove the dangerous parts, no need to be running around with scissors, and still have some useful bits.  For example, as Jörgen Nilsson and Stefan Schörling brought up during their demo at TechEd do you really need to be providing a way to shutdown full collections in one fell swoop?  Probably not.

So what you might like to do is edit the underlying xml files to remove some of the potentially career impacting functionality of the right click tools so malicious or accidental actions like shutting down collections, rebooting collections, or uninstalling agents just aren’t there to happen.  In the sub-folders of the Configuration Manager console installation there are folders that correspond to the GUIDs which represent locations in the console.  Under these foldrs are xml files that can be changed to fit your requirements.

There’s a lot more out there to see, what I’ve posted is just a toe in the ocean of what people in the Configuration Manager community have created to make life easier for those of us lucky enough to be working in this field.  There’s also a nice wiki page available as well that lists all of the goodies.

Stuff Made by Smart People to Help Make Your Life Easier – Part Three

Let’s see, where did I leave off?  This is what happens when life rears its head and tells you things need to be done that don’t included blog entries.

Next up on the list of goodness is a package of tools created by our friends at Microsoft called the Configuration Manager 2012 R2 Toolkit.  This toolkit includes just over a dozen tools, client and server based, to help in the day-to-day operation of your Configuration Manager environment and help with troubleshooting should problems arise.  The DP Job Manager and Collection Evaluation Viewer are two highlights but really I think all of these tools are worth a second look if you’re not using them already.

The System Center Configuration Manager Support Center is a tool I have yet to use but look at the cool stuff this thing does.  You’re basically going to run this tool and connect to the problem client machine.  Once connected you can gather up all the logs and settings and look under the hood to see what’s happening and sort out where the problem might be.  It let’s you look at the policies applied to the client so you can see if the actions you’re trying to push to the client are actually happening.  When I first saw this demoed, at TechEd Europe, I immediately thought of some work done recently trying to troubleshoot a client machine where I know this would have helped.

Client Center for Configuration Manager is another one of those “how did I manage without this?” tools.  This is the work of a MVP named Roger Zander.  This is another one of those troubleshooting tools that helps you gather up all the details in one place to help you figure out what’s busted and point you in the direction to fixing it.

Here’s another tool, similar to the Client Center for Configuration Manager called the Remote Manage app presented by a company called Cireson and a man named Wally Mead.  Tonnes of useful stuff can be gleaned from the client using this tool and this is the guy who would know best about what to get to help with troubleshooting.

Here’s where I’ll stop for today.  Go check this stuff out, I’ll be doing the same.

Stuff Made by Smart People to Help Make Your Life Easier – Part Two

It’s time to deploy some applications.  How should we accomplish this?  Well, thanks to Seán Lillis and Dan Cunningham and their PowerShell App Deployment Toolkit you’ve now got a slick, efficient way to deploy your apps and hand some control back to the client.  Basically, what this does is provide an interface and PowerShell template to allow a PowerShell noob like me to whip up applications following standardized and consistent procedures that have a common look and feel.  The client can be presented with dialog boxes and popup balloons providing information or prompting for interaction to smooth the installation of the apps.  Clients are as different as we are, some like to point and click while others just want it installed and will be “confused” if presented with a dialog box asking them what to do.  You get to decide how much or how little the client will see with this toolkit.  And it works with both SCCM 2007 and Configuration Manager 2012.  How cool is that?!

The SCCM 2012 Application Importer is another tool I’ve never seen before.  This is cool beans as well.  This tool will help you import the .MSI file, create the deployment type, choose the distribution group to deploy to, create the deployment, create a new distribution group if you need/want one, and create a new AD group if you need/want one.  Quite nice.  The nice thing about these tools is they help you create consistency.  It keeps things tidy and understandable in your Configuration Manager environment and that makes things easier to manage.

Who here likes to create documentation?  I used to hate it.  I’ve grown to enjoy creating documents that are clear and understandable and help the intended audience complete the procedure or receive the message being sent.  This tool, created by David O’Brien, is like mana from the gawds.  This tool does an inventory of your Configuration Manager environment and presents you with a nicely packaged document ready for some light bedtime reading or for presentation to your manager to show him/her what you’ve been up to all day.  I don’t know if I have a favourite tool but this is pretty close.

I think that’s enough for today, soak it in and enjoy the goodness!

Stuff Made by Smart People to Help Make Your Life Easier – Part One

One of my favourite sessions at TechEd Europe 2014 was presented by Jörgen Nilsson and Stefan Schörling.  You can see the entire presentation here. Today I’m going to comment on a few of the tools they spoke of that I find particularly useful.  All of the tools they presented are worth closer examination because they’re all just, well, brilliant.

The first stand out is a tool of brilliance created by a guy named Johan Arwidmark called the Hydration Kit for Configuration Manager 2012 R2.  This is pure genius.  Using this tool you can whip up a test environment quickly and easily.  After you download the software you prep the environment by installing the ADK and MDT, set up the necessary directory structure, unpack the Hydration Kit, distribute the downloaded files to the appropriate folders, and create a couple of VMs.  Then you’re off to the races.  Microsoft has something similar called the PowerShell Deployment Toolkit for System Center but I lean towards the Hydration Kit.  I have my own test environment setup and can’t tell you the number of times it has saved my bacon in doing something in the sandbox before having to execute the task in “real life”.

The next item is a tool called the Configuration Manager 2012 R2 Prerequisites Installation Tool.  This bad boy does as advertised and checks to make sure everything is good to go and simplifies the installation of the many components to make your Configuration Manager 2012 R2 world go.  This is one of the creations of Nickolaj Andersen.

I’m a big fan of BranchCache.  Why not take advantage of the bevy of client machines to help do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to distribution of files?  BranchCache for OSD Toolkit made by a company called 2Pint Software, and FREE, helps to do just that by offloading the task of grabbing the necessary files for OSD (WinPE, Task Sequences, etc) from local client machines instead of from the Configuration Manager infrastructure directly.  I love this stuff!

That’s it for now.  I’ll have a part two for you in a couple of days.  In the mean time, go check out this good stuff, if you haven’t already.  I can tell you I’ve been working with Configuration Manager for a few years now and there were more than a few surprises in the presentation at TechEd Europe.  So much goodness!