Customizing the Text ScreenSaver with Group Policy

screensaver settings

“Customizing screensavers?” I hear you cry, “That’s a bit retro isn’t it?”

Nowadays screensavers have more or less disappeared. It makes much more sense to just turn off the screen after 10 minutes of inactivity. However, there are some instances where a screensaver can be useful, for example, an always-on kiosk or even digital signage.

One of the more useful standard screensavers in the Windows operating system is called “3D Text”. Useful because by default it will display the time but can be customized to display some text instead

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Use Group Policy Preferences with WMI Targeting to Copy Files

wmi-lastmodified-1

Here’s a quick and simple guide on how to update a file based on it’s “last modified” date (but it can also be tweaked to use any file attribute). It uses the Item-Level Targeting feature of Group Policy Preferences. The problem is, the Targeting Editor only has a “File Match” option that can check whether a file exists or is of a certain version. Luckily, we can implement a custom WMI query to check any of the files attributes using the CIM_DataFile.

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Excel Tip: Apply Conditional Formatting to the whole row

Conditional Formatting Menu in Excel 2013

One of the Microsoft Excel features I use quite a bit is Conditional Formatting. This is the feature (introduced in Excel 2007) that lets you re-colour a cell in your worksheet depending on the criteria you specify, e.g. highlight any cells containing the word “Server 2003” in red.

The problem I was having was that I wanted the whole row to be highlighted, not just the particular record. It turns out this is fairly easy to do, even though it looks a bit difficult.

Step 1 – Create a new rule

  • The easiest way to start is to select one cell containing the text you want to highlight
  • Click the conditional formatting button on the toolbar and go to Highlight Cell Rules > Text that contains…
  • Format the text how you like, e.g. Light Red Fill with Dark Red Text
  • Click OK

You should now have one cell in your spreadsheet that is formatted how you want

Step 2 – Apply rule to the whole table

  • Click the conditional formatting button on the toolbar and go to Manage Rules…
  • You will see your new rule listed but the Applies to box will only reference one cell e.g. ‘ =$B$2
  • Change the text in the Applies to box to refer to the whole table e.g. ‘ =$A$1:$H$100 ‘
  • Click the Apply button

Now that rule will highlight any matching text in the entire table, not just one cell

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How To – Allow non-admins to start and stop system services

Jump down to Step 1 to skip the blurb

Any Microsoft Windows operating system has services. These are little programs that run in the background of the OS to keep things ticking over. They’re really fundamental to servers as it means that programs can run in the background without any user being logged. In fact Windows servers are fine-tuned to give better performance to background services rather than any app running on the screen.

It’s always the best principle to log on with the least amount of privileges on any PC, i.e. you shouldn’t log on to a desktop or server with full admin rights. You should log on as a normal user and only elevate the  programmes authority to admin level if absolutely necessary.

Some System Administrators may want an easy life and just let everything “run as admin” as it cuts back on a lot of problems, especially when using old software. Obviously this greatly widens the security attack vector, as any user who can gain access to the machine can do anything they want on it.

However, one of the issues of running as a standard user is that you are not allowed to stop or start Windows services. That is by design, you wouldn’t really want a non-admin to stop a critical service. The problem is when you have a Service Account running (as good practice dictates) as a lowly user. To get around this you can give the Service Account permission to do whatever you want to a particular service you want. Unfortunately, this is a bit more convoluted than setting file permissions. This article will explain how to achieve this. It applies to all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 or newer. My screenshots are from the Windows 8 Developer Preview.

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How to Troubleshoot Windows Update Errors

windows update iconWindows Update (a.k.a. Microsoft Update) is normally pretty reliable in terms of keeping your computer up to date and secure. Unfortunately, there are times when an update crashes your PC (usually due to a conflicting OEM driver) or the update process just stops working. Since Windows Vista, Microsoft moved away from using the update.microsoft.com website and now has a dedicated app in the Control Panel. However, the underlying technologies are still the same. Even if you have the Windows Software Update Services (WSUS) server, controlling 100s or 1000s of computers in a corporate network, you are still going to come across the same kind of problems. You would hope that WSUS had some easy troubleshooting/rollback tools built in but unfortunately that is not the case.

I thought it would be a good idea to gather all the various methods and tools I use when troubleshooting Windows/Microsoft Update to help both Home and Enterprise users alike

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WAMP, or installing Apache, MySQL & PHP on Windows Server 2003

Occasionally I get asked to do things that I don’t like to do. One of them is setting up a server with Windows Server 2003 on it. I’d much rather always go for the current operating system (e.g. Server 2008 R2) and if there is some incompatibility then we can work through it. One time this doesn’t apply is when you are setting up a server as a cold backup. This is a benefit of Software Assurance

For each Server License you have with Software Assurance, you have the right to install the same software product on a “cold” backup server for disaster recovery purposes

That means I can have one server waiting unplugged in server room to switch on if it’s twin server goes bang. I needed to build a replica of a particular web server in our company. It has to be exactly the same as the existing one because it is for Disaster Recovery only, therefore, no point in wasting a new licence. Yes the time may come when we have tested enough to get it on the most current OS but when that happens I’ll also update the cold backup.

So, on with the main part of this article. I have to install versions of Apache, MySQL and PHP on Windows (a.k.a. a WAMP server). The original server was set up by a person long gone from the company so it was a chance for me to try something new. I found the whole process really easy thanks to following the article » Beginners Guide: Install PHP 5, MySQL 5 on Apache 2.2 on Windows (with screenshots!) but there were a few tweaks and notes I had to do to get everything singing happily together. Below is the process I went through.

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Configuring Firefox proxy settings for all users

Spread Firefox Affiliate ButtonI recently had an issue with the latest version of Firefox (v3.6.15). Normally, when we install Firefox on our network, we have to change the proxy settings from the default “No Proxy” to “Auto-detect proxy settings for this network”. This doesn’t normally cause much of an issue as we only use Firefox on a few select machines and can be changed by the individual user. However, it seems the default install behaviour has slightly changed to add a new option that seems to muddy the water. There is now a “Use system proxy settings” option (similar to Google’s Chrome) that seems to be selected by default for new users. Although this may seem to make sense, on our network this causes terribly slow page load times, e.g. 10 minutes to load google.co.uk. Luckily I found a way to set the “Auto-detect” option for all users.

WARNING: This seems to have changed again since Firefox 4 was released. If anyone knows how to change it please add a comment.

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Tips – Finding the right Group Policy setting

UPDATED – see below for info on the new Group Policy Search web app

Now Windows Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) is nearing the end of it’s beta process it won’t be long before SysAdmins will be deploying it out across their networks. Something that occurs with any new Microsoft software is the need to update Group Policy to control any new features and lock down as appropriate. I thought I’d share a few tips on how I find discover and configure these new settings.

It seems that with each new Administrative template (ADMX) there are an ever-increasing amount of settings that can be managed (Over 1500 for IE9 alone!). While great for security it can be a headache to navigate. Microsoft usually lists the group policy settings for each product on the TechNet site, like this page for IE9, but did you know there is also an MSDN website (hosted on Azure) called Group Policy Search. This is a godsend policy administrators because not only does it allow you to search the contents of all the Microsoft Windows & Office policies but it also gives you the info like what the policy is supported on and even the registry key that the policy changes. This is a great place to copy details if you need to report to a manager on what a certain setting can do.

Group Policy Search Cloud App
Group Policy Search Cloud App

 This site does work on smartphones but I can see this working really well as a reference app on a mobile device. UPDATE: I just found that somebody has made this into an app for Windows Phone 7/8. Find it in the web store or search on your phones marketplace for Group Policy Search. Now it’s up to another dev to make one for Android and iPhone!

If you use Windows 7/Server 2008 R2, or later, you can also download a Search Connector (from the site’s Settings menu). This lets you search the Group Policy Search website from Windows Explorer, giving you an excerpt of the description and link to the relevant webpage. UPDATE: Unfortunately, due to the change of host for the web app, the connector is broken. Luckily, it is easily fixed by editing the OSDX file. Download the GroupPolicySearch.osdx connector from the site and open with a text editor. Change line 5 to the code below, save and then double-click the file to install to your userprofile/Searches folder

<Url type="application/rss+xml" template="http://gpsearch.azurewebsites.net/gps/rss.ashx?search={searchTerms}"/>
Group Policy Search Connector
Group Policy Search Connector in Windows 7

Another task that becomes complicated is to find settings you have previously changed. I may open up the Group Policy Editor knowing I need to modify a previous setting change but it can be like finding a needle in a haystack digging through all the non-configured settings. You can find it via a report in the Group Policy Management console but did you know you can also filter policies in the editor? Go to the View menu and choose Filter Options. Here you can set up a number of criteria on what you want to see. I typically would change it to only show configured settings and also any policy with my initials in the comments. This makes it really easy to see the changes I have made and adjust them appropriately.

Group Policy Filtering
Group Policy Filtering

I hope that’s given you a bit of help in discovering and managing group policy settings. Let me know your tips in the comments.

UPDATE: I discovered this great page in the increasingly useful TechNet Wiki – Group Policy Survival Guide. It contains links to anything and everything to do with Group Policy

How to add a Path to the System Variables in Windows 2008 R2

One of our tech bods was asking how to find the System Variables in Server 2008 R2. They had previously been using Server 2003 and, although the location hasn’t really changed, it can be a bit tricky to find it. So to help others here is an elaborate diagram Winking smile

set path

i.e. Control Panel>System Properties>Advanced System Settings link>Advanced tab>Environment Variables button>Scroll down the System Variables section to find Path

I’m glad to say, R2 also lets you simply type in “Path” to the Start Menu to bring up the same end target. Now that’s progress!