Windows group policies in the real world

Trevor's technical tidbits

One change between NT5 and NT6 that many administrators overlook is the move away from ADM files and towards ADMX files. Both are ways of loading templates for group policy settings into the AD, but the selling point for ADMX files is that they are XML. ADMX files are billed as “human readable,” and they are.

To the kind of people that read XML, anyway.

But, by being XML, it’s easy to create a program that will read or generate ADMX files. There's no shortage of companies offering software to parse or generate GPO templates like this. Google them, too.

If you had previously put time into creating old NT5 ADM files, the newer ADMX files will supersede them. ADMX files are also language-neutral. They contain only the GPO and its value. The descriptions are stored in an ADML file. This is useful if you have admins who speak different languages.

"Starter GPOs" in NT6 are neat. Think of them as a sort of template, though don't confuse them with ADMX template files. Say all of your GPOs are working just the way you want them to. Turn your GPOs into starter GPOs, which will offer themselves as prepopulated templates the next time you go to add a GPO. The limitation is that only “administrative templates” can be part of a starter GPO.

Starter GPOs are an excellent way to set up preconfigured template GPOs so your junior administrators have a smaller chance of making things go boom while they are learning the ropes. They belong in the category of child’s play system management, along with the rest of group policy from the NT5 era.

You can't unlock the real power of GPOs under NT6 unless you are a Microsoft volume licensing customer, and you get the Microsoft Desktop Optimisation Pack (MDOP). MDOP includes Advanced Group Policy Management (AGMP), the real meat of which boils down to two words: change control. It’s nowhere near the robust versioning of other systems management tools like Puppet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Combined with offline editing and role-based delegation, AGPM is an exceptionally useful product. It's irritating that MDOP and AGPM aren’t available to all NT6 customers. It's upsetting I can’t even purchase it unless I'm a volume licensing customer.

Starter GPOs are useful. When it comes to putting some real power in the hands of systems administrators, AGMP is a good start. But you simply can’t beat scripting for true administrative control. For this, Microsoft offers the ability to use WMI filters or to deploy VB or Powershell scripts. These features make Microsoft the equal of any Unix based operating system for scripting control.

Sadly when it comes to actually implementing the power of these scripting features, applications like Puppet walk all over Microsoft in terms of versioning, reversion and ease of use. Ultimately Microsoft offers two options: “easy to use but fairly limited” and “remarkably powerful but with nothing to help you keep organised”. ®

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