I’ve recently posted some information about the work I do with Altiris, but I realise that there are loads of organisations out there that don’t have Altiris or similar deployment tools within their organisation, so what can they do to save time and effort supporting their desktop (and server) users?
Well, in my opinion, nearly everything you can do in Altiris you can do without it (if you’re creative enough).
Regedit: Microsoft’s humble registry editor which support people have used time and again to resolve issues by tweaking registry keys in Windows. Many don’t realise that you can remotely connect to another PCs registry from your own (Administrator rights required). Now it’s true that you don’t get the full set of registry keys, but in my experience most issues can be fixed as long as you have access to HKeyLocalMachine (which remote regedit gives you).
Using File / Connect Network Registry… and then providing the name or IP of the remote PC you can change, add delete and change permissions on the keys you need without having to visit the PC (or annoy the user by kicking them off the PC).
Reg: this command line utility allows you to query, add, delete, amend, copy, save, load, unload, compare and loads of other handy features. Using some simple batch scripting techniques you could easily create an inventory of a PC, report registry entries and Change them if wrong and all manner of cool possibilities. Whilst some of the commands are designed to run on the local machine ( see tip below about AT), most support the \\PCName\HKLM\… convention to run the command on a remote PC.
AT: another long standing Command line Windows utility that goes under the radar. AT is a scheduling utility which can (Admin rights required) create a scheduled task to run on a local or remote PC. The scheduled task can be set to run according to a schedule set up as part of the command and can be Interactive (ie users see what’s happening) or not. the command can even be set to repeat of this is required.
This is a handy replacement for Altiris scheduled jobs and allows commands that can only be run on the PC (ie there’s no remote option) to be run on a remote PC of your choosing. When used with some Batch / shell/ Windows Scripting host or other scripting some logging and admin can be built in, possibly to save logs to a central network location. Please Note that for security reasons (I’m thinking Blaster Virus) the task scheduler may be disabled on a remote PC (possibly via Group Policy).
Windows shares: Windows (by default) has two shares C$ (the C drive of the PC) and admin$ (%SYSTEMROOT% ie c:\windows or equivalent ). These are commonly known as Administrative shares and the $ at the end of the share name indicates that the share is hidden when browsing to the PC. If these shares are not disabled by group policy (or other security method), installs and required files can be copied to the PC so that you can perform whatever task you need (possibly with other tools such as AT?).
Group Policy: Most desktop support staff don’t have access to group policy as it is seen as a part of a Server administrator/support role, in my experience, however of you do then it’s a godsend. Microsoft allow you to change registry settings, install programs via Microsoft installer (MSI) and many vendors provide administrative ad dons to Group Policy that you may be able to use to support the end users. Group Policy is very powerful so it’s best to know what you’re doing but it’s handy for doing things like locking PCs down to prevent uses from installing unwanted applications, forcing settings (Windows or other Software Application vendor) etc.
Microsoft Server Toolkits: (such as windows 2003 Toolkit) These Toolkits contain a wealth of tools and utilities that can be used either remotely on the local PC (see AT) to perform actions such as configuring printers (eg PrintUI allows install of printer drivers, printer ports and printer queues), investigating group policy issues and much more.
SysInternals: SysInternals were a group of IT staff who created little hacks to do things that Windows didn’t. Microsoft eventually brought them into Microsoft and allowed them to develop the tools. Most of these are diagnostics tools but many are extremely handy, such as the tool that lets you investigate all the processes (and associations) running and not just what Task Manager shows [handy for Virus & malicious software removal]. AutoRuns is another handy diagnostics tool to identify what applications are running at startup [handy for investigating viruses or slow startup of Windows PCs]. The list of tools is massive and grows as Windows develops and changes.
AutoIt: AutoIt is a programming tool that uses a Visual Basic Script type language but is capable of things Visual Basic Script can’t do. My most common use for this tool is for reading prompts that appear during an install that can’t be run silently allowing some form of automation and allowing installs to be done in a fraction of the time it would take to do manually. AutoIt can read the header, content of the prompt and sometimes the buttons and can be scripted to send key presses or mouse clicks to buttons, dialogue boxes etc. freeing the IT support person from repeatedly entering details repeatedly and prevents manual errors during installs. I have found it especially useful for installation to suites of 20+ computers, when the installer uses a non standard software (usually created in Visual Basic or Borland Delphi by the vendor) or created without the proper silent install functions of the installer.
AutoIt can also be used for simple actions like checking for network drives, permission to a folder/file or creating/deleting/modifying registry entries, something that can be handy if you want to check users permissions, force a registry change of similar before starting a program (rename original .exe and replace with autoIt script compiled as an .exe then call the renamed original .exe)
[to be continued ]