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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The MDT and Office 2013 Click-to-Run Jigsaw Puzzle

office 2013 iconsIf you are trying to deploy a click-to-run (C2R) version of Office 2013/365 then it’s time to forget everything you knew about deploying office and start from a clean slate!

Due to Office 2013’s Cloud-based nature it is set up a bit differently to the traditional CD/MSI approach. This is fine if it’s your personal copy but what about deploying it to an whole office of PCs?

IT pros have been using the Microsoft Installer (MSI) technology for years to silently install Office programs. You can use a mix of existing switches to update and patch Office installations using Group Policy, scripts, Office Customization Tool (OCT) or the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT).  However, Microsoft, in their wisdom, decided to offer a brand new deployment methodology for Office 2013, Click-To-Run. There is still an MSI version out there but it is only available for the Volume Licensed customers, which means, if your business was used to buying the much cheaper Product Key Card (PKC) licenses, you are stuck with C2R. Oh, and by the way, WSUS can’t be used to update it either.

We came across this issue when we purchased and job lot of PKCs for Office Home and Business 2013. This includes Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. This seems like an ideal buy for most small businesses as it includes all of the core Office apps that your average user would need. However, when it comes to deploying, customising and activating it is about as far from business-ready as you can get! I struggled for weeks trying to get things working correctly to allow a smooth integration with our Windows 7 deployment, I did finally get there, but I hit so many brick walls I almost gave up trying. The worst part is when you get a stock “You should buy Volume Licenses” response… erm yeh, I wish I knew that 3 months ago before the money was spent.

So here is my ultimate guide to installing, customising and activating Office 2013 C2R editions. It’s not going to be pretty but it will get you someway to a mostly automated and controlled deployment. It is specifically tailored towards Office 2013 Home and Business but should work for any Office 2013 C2R version that needs to be deployed in a Windows Domain

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Legacy: Silently Install Crystal Reports Viewer 2

File this one under PITA.

As part of our #XPMustDie campaign we sometimes come across old software that simply cannot be updated in time. It’s usually some bespoke system that will take a lot of time and money to re-write or upgrade. In my opinion, it is better to get the OS secure and let an old legacy app run, than to keep a dusty Windows XP PC just for the use of one program. Of course, the ideal solution may be to virtualise the app but if you don’t have the infrastructure in place already then that may be cost-prohibitive or time consuming as well.

One such app we need to use is  Crystal Reports Viewer 2.0. This is completely unsupported by the publisher (SAP) and means it is very difficult to track down files or documentation.

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The new way to configure Internet Explorer proxy settings with Group Policy

Internet Explorer 10 was released for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 machines back in February 2013. Nine months later and we are going through it again with Internet Explorer 11. For SysAdmins and IT Pros managing software updates, these new versions led to quite a significant change in how we use Group Policy to manage them.

I only recently discovered that when Windows 8 (and along with it IE10) was released they finally got rid of the “Internet Explorer Maintenance” Section of the Group Policy Editor. This section always struck me as an odd place to configure IE settings and I’m still not sure why they couldn’t just use the normal Administrative Template section.

Internet Explorer Maintenance in Server 2003 Group Policy Editor
Internet Explorer Maintenance in Server 2003 Group Policy Editor

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My Toolbox – Quick and easy driver backup with Double Driver

Just a quick post because I wanted to give a worthy bit of software a shout-out.

Double Driver from http://www.boozet.org/dd.htm

This little free program lets you back up all of the drivers on your PC for safe keeping. This is really handy if you want to save them all before a major update or re-installation. I also use it a lot on PCs with older operating systems (like Windows XP) because sometimes they are a real pain to try and find from the official OEM website (HP, I’m looking at you). It’s the kind of utility you wished Microsoft had just built directly into the Windows Device Manager.

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Group Policy Management Overview

gpmc iconWe use Group Policy to tweak the default settings on Microsoft Servers and PCs. You edit the policies using the Group Policy Editor console (gpedit.msc) but to manage the policies you use the Group Policy Management Console (gpmc.msc). The more policies you start to create, the more confusing managing them can become and with each new version of Microsoft software (Office included) new Group Policy templates are added. This article is to give you an insight into exactly what the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) is about and how everything links together.

It’s always best to edit policies from the latest OS. This is one of the reasons to always have a VM somewhere with the latest OS purely for Group Policy. Alternatively, if you are using the latest OS then you can install the GPMC from the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) and then edit the policies from there. If you don’t, it’s not a big issue but some policies won’t be available. All of the templates can be stored in a central location in Active Directory so they can be accessed by all domain machines. There is some debate whether it is best to have the policies held locally rather than in the central store but I think it works well. By default this is \\DCName\sysvol\domain.name\Policies\PolicyDefinitions. If you ever download a new template you will need to put it in there. For more details on activating the central store se the following Microsoft Support article

Inheritance & Precedence

Group Policies Objects (GPOs) are created in the Group Policy Objects folder in GPMC. Policies are then linked to Active Directory Organizational Units (OUs). You can link as many Policies as you like to an OU and you can also link the same policy to as many OUs as you like. You can also block inheritance by right-clicking an OU and disabling it. The precedence of any GPOs, i.e. what GPO policy wins out of any competing policies, can be changed in the Linked GPO tab of an OU. Normally the deepest policy wins.

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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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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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Using Saved Queries to filter Active Directory Users and Computers

imageJust a quick article here for a late Friday afternoon article.

If you managed Microsoft Windows Active Directory based domains you should be very familiar with the management console Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC). When you have a sprawling OU design it can be difficult to find the user, computer or group that needs your attention. I set up a few saved queries to give me an easy to read list view of certain object types. If you can’t figure out how to create a new saved query then you may be in the wrong job but the is a comprehensive guide over at the Petri IT Knowledgebase. The 3 I use most often are set up as follows

  • All Devices
    • A simple query where just the computer object must have a value to display
  • All Users
    • Same as above, just make sure you are focussing on Users not Computers
  • Locked accounts
    • My most useful time saver. This one is only slightly more tricky as you need to enter a custom search string. Credit goes to an article on WinodwsNetworking.com for this one. By using the string below, when somebody calls to say they have been locked out, I can quickly bring up this saved query and unlock them in a matter of seconds
    • (&(&(&(objectCategory=Person)(objectClass=User)(lockoutTime>=1))))

You can really go to town on these queries and there is a great list already created for you, back over on the Petri IT Knowledgebase