Microsoft Ignite 2017 Thoughts

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending Microsoft Ignite 2017 in Orlando, Florida, one of the best and well-organized conferences I have ever attended. There were a ton of sessions to attend for people of all backgrounds in IT, so I couldn’t hit them all (thankfully they’re posting the sessions on YouTube).

It’s a juggling act at events like this to strike the balance between personal interest and getting information/training to add value to the organization that sends you, so I focused on Windows 10 Deployment, Azure IaaS, and whatever Powershell nuggets I could find. All three topics are too much for one post alone, so I wanted to dump some thoughts on one that stuck out the most: Windows 10 Deployment.

Creeping from the Old to the New: Windows 10 Deployment

Device deployment in the Microsoft world has been dominated by what they call “traditional IT”, which we in the SCCM/MDT world would just call imaging. The “traditional” method of deploying devices often involved a lot of preconfiguration before the device actually reached the end-users, often with BIOS updates/configs and the tried and true method of wipe and load.

Of course, at Microsoft Ignite, you’re going to get proselytized about the company’s newest technology, and the direction Microsoft is transitioning to is something they call “modern IT”. It’s best summarized in this slide from Michael Niehaus’ session on deploying Windows 10:

Traditional IT VS Modern IT

In practice, what this actually looks like is a bit of gradient between on-premise and cloud-based services, but the direction Microsoft is taking is to move identity services to Azure Active Directory, device management to InTune, applications are deployed from the Windows Store, and updates are managed via Windows Updates for Business. The entire process initiated on end-devices after a user logs into a device with their email and password with an Internet connection, removing the need for special provisioning. The entire process is summarized into what Microsoft calls “Windows AutoPilot“.

However, what I took from AutoPilot and all the deployment sessions was that while Microsoft would love for organizations to move their deployments online and sign-up for that recurring revenue, they know this is still a little ways off and doesn’t offer the feature parity of AD/SCCM. So instead, they’ve designed InTune and SCCM to really work in what they call “co-existence”, which comes from using the old and new methods together as a form of transition (to varying degrees): InTune-SCCM-AAD, or InTune-SCCM-AD, or (insert combo). The idea here is to not go full cloud, but transition to it to some degree.

One of the deployment MVPs who represented Microsoft explained it to me like this. Microsoft’s story about centralized Windows management has been largely one-sided for over 20 years: SCCM or nothing. There was no middle-ground between nothing and SCCM (although you could cobble-up some combination of AD, MDT, and scripts). InTune, AutoPilot, Windows Store — the combination of it all presents a middle-ground, a sort of gradient to centralized management. If you want a lot of control over your devices, continue using SCCM; if you want something simple, you have InTune now.

I think what Microsoft has done is make an interesting case for “modern” deployment, but until their on-premise AD component is deployed and fully-tested, I just don’t see a compelling case to even try InTune yet. The current deployment process, while not perfect, works pretty well, so this would have to be hardware that is proven to work well. Past experience makes me skeptical that hardware will work as well and consistently as SCCM OSD does (then again, I’m not working with users across the globe, so maybe there’s a better case to be made in that scenario).

Modern Windows 10 Deployment and Education

Bringing this closer to the industry I currently work in, Microsoft’s case for Windows 10 deployment and management for education is strong and better than ever before. Windows AutoPilot is indeed a great way to deploy devices (no matter which way you approach it), Azure AD and Office 365 are stellar products, OneNote is awesome (best education tool I’ve seen), Microsoft Teams looks amazing (especially with its takeover of Skype for Business and integration with Microsoft Classroom), and Microsoft’s licensing is making a big change. The classroom tools are indeed there, and management is as easy as G Suite (IMO).

However, I can’t help but ask: has the ship already sailed for a lot of K-12 organizations? I mean, Microsoft certainly has this great product for K-12, but a lot of organizations have already made massive investments in their device purchases, the technology choices they’re using in the classroom, and the email/cloud platform that they’re running applications with. These organizations already have inertia in the direction of these choices, so does Microsoft have enough to unbalance this forward motion?

Office 365 vs. G Suite

I personally don’t think so, at least for the G Suite organizations. These organizations chose G Suite (or Google Apps at the time) largely because they could purchase educational devices for cheap, thereby getting more devices into student’s hands, and Google’s services (which users organically learned to use over the years) was free. Around the same time, Office 365 licensing was confusing, and while there were some free options, the service parity for device management just wasn’t there compared to G Suite.

Fast forward to today, and the case for medium and large education institutions moving to Microsoft 365 is more compelling in the context of data security. The new A3 and A5 pricing structures from Microsoft bring with them EMS, thereby allowing greater data loss protection and services. Meanwhile, Google removes feature parity between it’s Education and Enterprise products, requiring organizations acquire the Enterprise suite at $25/user per month for services such as DLP.

Education Desktop Bundling Licensing Changes

Maybe it’s the Microsoft Ignite kool-aid in my system, but Microsoft has a better case for it’s products than Google with it’s licensing combos, or maybe Microsoft is just better at marketing and promoting it’s platform than Google. In the education world, I hardly ever hear from Google themselves promoting their products, it’s always someone doing something randomly. Microsoft constantly makes contact with my org, but Google — not a peep.

Kid drinking Kool-Aid
Yes…give me more…

I’m going to go drink some MDT kool-aid now…

Quick Thoughts: A Little Confused About Windows 10 S in Education

Microsoft recently announced a new version of Windows 10 called Windows 10 S. This new version of Windows 10 is designed with education customers in mind, offering manageability and security similar to that of Chromebooks (which is what this OS is essentially competing with).

Windows 10 S machines are to be managed from Intune/Intune for Education, with programs available only from the Windows Store, and identity management is handled via Azure Active Directory. Windows 10 S machines prices will start around $189, making these machines definitely competitive with Chromebooks.

But why in the world would a school district choose to purchase these devices?

First off, the timing of this announcement seems a little late. Most schools where I live needed to have their budgets turned in long ago, and as a result have made purchasing decisions already. The machines are either already ordered and on their way, and/or the decision has already been made for the summer infrastructure plans and schools are preparing for the changes. Nothing in Windows 10 S stands out enough to stop the process and rethink what machines need to be deployed.

Second, Windows 10 S seems like it’s stuck in the middle of being like Windows, but also some new Windows Cloud OS. It looks and feels just like Windows 10, but behaves like a Microsoft Chromebook, and if an end-user, thinking that this Windows environment is just like any other Windows environment, they’ll probably find unexpectedly that they can’t install applications, are forced to have Edge as their default browser and Bing as their search engine, and probably won’t find Google Chrome in the Windows Store.

This is a huge problem for most mid-to-large school districts because there is a certain paradigm about how Windows machines are to be used, and administrators have designed their entire management infrastructure around this. Windows 10 S has no on-premise Active Directory domain-join, so that also means no group policy, no certificate enrollment for RADIUS authentication, or any other service that ties into the existing on-premise infrastructure.

As a result, Windows 10 S devices live as a fourth type of device to manage, next to Apple products, Chromebooks, and Windows machines. Windows 10 S devices are, in essence, in some other management world, unless, of course, you start tying together your on-premise devices with Intune/Intune for Education, but that assumes you’re not using a third-party MDM, which would complicate this further.

Even if you’re a small school/school district with limited resources, you’ve probably already moved to Chromebooks as your device of choice. Your email, office suite, and even file management are tied into G Suite now. Students, teachers, and staff are all familiar with G Suite and probably don’t care to uproot their files and teaching methods for Microsoft.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Microsoft has some pretty cool services and features in Office 365, but is it enough to for schools to have a complete paradigm shift and start purchasing cheap Microsoft devices? Not yet, but maybe. Microsoft needs to have a more compelling case that targets teachers and principals because people in information technology already understand what Microsoft has to offer, but sysadmins just maintain and expand the services based on the policies of what the curriculum makers decide.

Google has done an excellent job in giving teachers the tools they need, and they were the first to market for cheap, easy-to-manage devices. As a result, Microsoft has a tough hill to climb, and I just don’t think Windows 10 S is going to help enough to propel Microsoft over the hill, let alone up it.

Quick Thoughts: Operating Between G Suite and Office 365

(I’ve decided to change things up a little bit and add some tech opinions every now and then, especially since I’ve changed jobs and I am now working for a medium-large school district. I’m titling these, “Quick Thoughts” that I’m going to write during my lunch breaks. Perhaps first of many…)

As a systems engineer for a school district, one of the tasks I have is to assist in the configuration and maintenance of our end-users working with whatever tools are offered by and Microsoft and Google. At our school district, we are primarily a G Suite shop, with students and staff working within the G Suite apps, but what about the tools that Microsoft offers with Office 365 such as OneNote, Microsoft Classroom, and others? How do we, as the administrators of such tools, give these users the ability to work with whatever tools they want?

It seems a bit difficult at times because each platform, G Suite and Office 365, appear to really rely on their email services to leverage alerts and messaging, so if you miss a conversation in Skype for Business, you’ll only receive the email within your Exchange email, but you won’t receive it on the Gmail side. I’m not entirely sure this is a two-way street on the Google side, as I’ve seem to have no problems logging into services like Meetup.com with my G Suite account, but receive my emails from the account on my Office 365 account.

It seems like Google is playing fair with their services, but Microsoft certainly doesn’t seem that way. So do we move email services to Office 365, and will this provide our users a better experience?

I’m not sure, and of course I don’t make those decisions, but I do think about it.

Maybe the more accurate question is “How cleanly can users operate in both worlds?” Sadly, while Google appears to behave better than Microsoft, this behavior actually hurts them a little bit for organizations like ours that want to use both services, as it forces us to consider using Exchange services for email to make the overall user experience better.

Microsoft seems to be the bad actor in this situation because they’re services don’t behave well with email systems other than Exchange. Even on-premise Exchange takes a bit of work to get working with Office 365 services.

Microsoft really wants all the business and tries to push organizations that way, but Google plays better with others, and Google’s platform seems to be more easily adopted by teachers than Microsoft’s (especially evident by how much marketing Microsoft has to do for education).

Of course, I’m assuming Google does play nice, but I haven’t tested every Google product, but Google has shown signs of not playing nice too, like dropping XMPP support for Hangouts, but that’s another conversation, and I’ve got to head back to work.