Configuration Manager, Intune, and the Cloud – What’s your plan?

As I meet with organizations, I learn what their business goals are, what their end user goals are, and what their budgetary guidelines are. I also learn a lot about their endpoint management goals. What I’ve discovered is endpoint management has different meanings for each customer with a few common themes, user experience, simplification, and cost reduction.

The pace of change with technology is extremely rapid and organizations often struggle to keep up with all the updates across deployed technologies. When IT teams deploy technologies to help secure and simplify administration, they must provide evidence to the organization about the short- and long-term benefits of shifting to newer technologies, especially if they are duplicative of existing technologies. The evidence to rip and release a working solution is typically prioritized and is provided in the forms of cost reduction, end user benefits, and administrative simplification. Looking back in history, many would argue managing Windows in the enterprise has been a priority for most organizations. Many of these organizations today continue to manage Windows with a variety of technologies with one, (based on my interaction with hundreds of organizations) standing out the most, System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr).

Configuration Manager has been around for a couple decades and for good reason, in my opinion it manages Windows best. For those familiar with ConfigMgr, you’re probably familiar with its history and the changes to the product over time. What I’ve seen is a blend of enhancing the client, infrastructure, and administrative experiences, including enhancements to reporting, management techniques, bandwidth controls, scale, performance, and more recently attaching Configuration Manager to the cloud. These advancements are critical to an ever-changing landscape of Windows computing and resource access.

Why write about this now?

There are a couple reasons:

  • Organizations are going through digital transformation and taking a hard look at existing endpoint management solutions.
  • Configuration Manager remains one of the most widely utilized endpoint management technologies across organizations today and I articulate the ongoing value of ConfigMgr in the content below.

Recently organizations have asked me the question if ConfigMgr is “dead” and my consistent answer is “no” is it not, ConfigMgr as of this post manages over 150 million endpoints, in fact there’s been continued investment in ConfigMgr year-over-year. Take a look at “What’s New in Configuration Manager” over the past several releases and you’ll see a growing list of exciting enhancements over each release.

You’ll also notice ConfigMgr has a release roughly every four months which provides a predicable release schedule for organizations needing to plan updates. Speaking of ConfigMgr updates, in console notifications of new releases provides an easy and informative method to update ConfigMgr to the next release by a click of a button. In addition, ConfigMgr technical previews allow organizations to test new features ahead of upgrading to the next service release of ConfigMgr. The servicing of ConfigMgr and technical previews are a win/win in my opinion.

I also receive questions such as “why stay with Configuration Manager, when I see Microsoft doubling down on efforts to enhance Intune toward feature parity?“. While partially true, there are clear advantages to continue utilizing ConfigMgr and leverage the cloud by cloud attaching ConfigMgr.

For example:

  • Preparing your infrastructure for cloud attach by extending ConfigMgr to Azure enables organizations to manage devices off the corporate network by utilizing Cloud Management Gateway .  By attaching ConfigMgr to the cloud, it allows organizations to simplify management of Windows devices and administrators will have the advantage of leveraging current processes built around endpoint management with ConfigMgr.
  • Organizations needing high availability in ConfigMgr can take advantage of site server high availability and SQL Always On.
  • Cloud attach Windows 10 clients to Intune by enabling co-management in ConfigMgr allows organizations to utilize ConfigMgr and Intune to manage Windows devices.  By enabling co-management, the organization benefits from the currently unparalleled strength of Configuration Manager as well as additional benefits cloud services such as Microsoft Intune and Azure Active Directory provide.
    For example, ConfigMgr client health will be reported directly to the device stats in Intune (shown below), remote actions may be initiated directly from the Intune admin console, as well as utilizing conditional access policies with Azure Active Directory to control access to company resources.

So why not move from ConfigMgr and manage all Windows devices with Intune?

Although managing devices may be viable for many modern management scenarios, there are scenarios where ConfigMgr remains as the preferred solution including:

  • Network controls for locations with low bandwidth
  • Down-level Windows 7/8 client management
  • Windows Server management
  • Devices that are network Air Gapped (isolated) and have no Internet access
  • OS deployment through network boot options
  • Complex application deployment scenarios
  • Third-party software updates
  • Etc.

Co-management provides methods for organizations running ConfigMgr to decide where they manage certain workloads. Currently, there are a number of workloads that may be managed by Intune when devices are co-managed, including:

  • Compliance policies
  • Device configuration
  • Endpoint Protection
  • Resource access policies
  • Client apps
  • Office Click-to-Run apps
  • Windows Update Policies

When utilizing co-management there are several advantages to utilizing Intune, for example in a co-managed scenario when moving “compliance policies” workload over to Intune, organizations can take advantage of Azure Active Directory Conditional Access. There are also immediate benefits of co-management such as executing remote actions directly from Intune including: Factory Reset, Selective Wipe, Device Restart, Fresh Start, etc. Intune compliance policies also play a significate role in controlling device health and access via Azure AD conditional access, for example Windows 10 compliance policies may require one or more of the following before accessing corporate resources:

  • Use a password to access devices
  • Encryption (e.g. BitLocker)
  • Firewall enabled
  • Installed Antivirus
  • Installed AntiSpyWare
  • Windows Defender version and signature is up-to-date
  • Minimum OS version required
  • Maximum OS version allowed
  • Valid operating system builds
  • Require the device to be at or under the Mobile Threat Defense level integrated with Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection

Traditionally, setting up device health posture for an on-premises requires additional services and hardware such as a Network Access Control (NAC) solution. Whereas selecting workloads by enabling co-management for Intune to manage, organizations can take advantage of access controls delivered from Azure AD and Intune, including for on-premises web applications published through Azure AD Application Proxy. Not only is device health posture evaluated, additional access controls may be enabled including multi-factor authentication.

Below is an example of a device managed with ConfigMgr and Intune where compliance is reported back and shows in the ConfigMgr Software Center.

Intune Portal – shows compliant

Software Center – shows compliant (reported back from Intune)

Windows Deployment

Now let’s talk about Windows deployment options. Traditional deployment techniques for Windows typically involves an image that requires updating and then a system to publish those images so when a bare-metal boot takes place an image can be accessed, downloaded, and installed. OS image management can be a time-consuming process as it requires a human resource to manage and update the OS, drivers, apps, agents, etc. Some organizations offload OS image management to an OEM where the OEM preloads the image on the device, however the images still need to be maintained, and offloading to the OEM comes at a cost.

By leveraging Microsoft Intune and Azure Active Directory, organizations can take advantage of Windows Autopilot. Autopilot is very exciting as it eliminates the OS image management process which in turn can reduce IT costs. By pre-registering devices with Microsoft Intune when a user receives a device from the OEM, upon boot and connecting to the internet, the device will see that it’s registered with Microsoft Intune and go through the Autopilot process.

When organizations continue to utilize ConfigMgr, the CM agent can be pushed from Intune and the device now connects directly to ConfigMgr (when on corporate network) or through the Cloud Management Gateway giving your organization the confidence of maintaining current processes. Additionally, utilizing task sequences in ConfigMgr, Windows 7/8 devices may be upgraded to Windows 10 and automatically enabled for AutoPilot thereafter. The Windows 7/8 to 10 upgrade process may be pushed automatically or manually executed by end users (see screenshot below).

What about running scripts and installing software?

Both ConfigMgr and Intune support running PowerShell scripts and deploying Win32 applications, however for complex scripting scenarios such as running in task sequences and complex application deployments (i.e. deep app dependencies, etc.), ConfigMgr is unparalleled in this space.

My colleague Danny Guillory (who is also a PM on the Intune team) provided the following comments about Win32 applications and Intune:

Win32 App Deployment in Intune is a great way to get those .exe applications deployed and installed on those Windows Devices. The Win32 Wrapping Tool wraps all the files within that folder (think of a zipped folder), then distributes and deploys those files to the endpoints. The addition of detection method and delivery optimization makes Win32 app deployment more robust, simplifies distribution of content, and makes Win32 apps a must to explore with Intune Application Deployment.”

Additionally, MSIX is a new app packaging format that can take existing Win32 applications such as APP-V, MSI, .exe, etc. and package them in the new MSIX format. Many partners already support MSIX as well and for more details on MSIX packaging please visit: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/msix/

If you’re looking to simplify application deployment both ConfigMgr and Intune provide the tools needed to deploy applications.

Monitoring and Reporting

Finally let’s talk about monitoring and reporting. ConfigMgr comes with hundreds of built-in reports, in addition there are newer monitoring and reporting capabilities with co-managed devices and a new reporting feature called CMPivot that provides real-time state of devices (see screenshot below). If you’re looking to creating dashboards based on ConfigMgr data, look into the Power BI template for ConfigMgr.

Next Steps

There are many Ignite sessions covering the topics in this post as well, to watch videos and learn more about the services and features discussed in this post please visit: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ignite search for “configuration manager”, “MSIX”, “Intune”

In conclusion, as organizations plan for the future of modernizing Windows management processes, my message to those organizations is to continue to leverage your current investments in ConfigMgr and keep current with releases. In parallel, begin to look at the benefits of cloud attaching ConfigMgr and/or managing workloads with Intune.

Author: Courtenay Bernier

Courtenay is a technology professional with expertise in aligning traditional software and cloud services to strategic business initiatives. He has over 20 years of experience in the technology field as well as industry experience working with distribution centers, call centers, manufacturing, retail, restaurant, software development, engineering, and consulting.

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