Monday, June 22, 2020

Workspace ONE UEM Alternatives To AD Group Policies: Get Yourself Free

Modern management promises the ability to administer desktops and laptops without requiring they have membership to a domain or even connectivity to a corporate network. A common techie response to this proposition is, "what about GPOs?" IT shops have managed desktops with AD based GPOs for decades now, a process that's been pretty much boiled down to a science.  However, when it comes to switching from AD based GPOs to modern management the path forward is far less prescriptive or codified, with a wide range of options and room for creativity.  At the risk of being crude I'd say there's 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and over 10 ways to leave your AD GPOs while embracing modern management with Workspace ONE.

There are 5 different Configuration Service Provider (CSP) based options alone, including WS1's native Win10 profiles, AirLift exports and Policy Builder. Then there's WS1 Baselines, which under the hood is an amalgamation of 3 different non-CSP based strategies. Finally, there's the GPO migration tool, customized scripts and various imaginable DIY permutations.

This post is a primer on transitioning from AD based GPOs to Workspace ONE's modern management alternatives.  It will review and prioritize various guidance and strategies, with particular focus on the recently released tutorial, Understanding Windows 10 Group Policies: VMware Workspace ONE Operation Tutorial. While providing brief descriptions of the different alternatives I want to zero in on a few key decision points along the path from traditional AD GPOs to modern management.  

Do You Have An AD Legacy To Preserve?

With all the migration options available, overlapping capabilities, caveats and all, sorting out an optimal path forward is tough.  While discussing this challenge a colleague of mine, Jason Walker, made an excellent point. "Well, if someones asking, 'which route should I take,' the first question to asks is, 'who are you and what's your normal role/technical back ground?'"  So are you an MDM guy who's looking for some basic management or are you a grizzled AD administrator who's managed GPOs for decades?  To further refine the question, “does your enterprise have a heavy investment and reliance on GPOs?  Is there a GPO legacy you absolutely need to port over to modern management?"  Getting this question answered elucidates a path forward.  

For the traditional MDM guy or someone who doesn't have the luggage of an extensive AD GPO legacy, start with a careful investigation of WS1's native Win10 capabilities, then move on to WS1 UEM Baselines.  On the other hand, if you have an AD legacy to preserve and extend to modern management, start with AirLift.  The reporting capabilities of AirLift alone are worth the price of admission, providing key information for GPO rationalization.  With this info in hand scan the built in Win10 profiles for overlapping functionality, then turn to WS1 Baselines or AirLift's export capabilities to fill in the gaps.  Finally, in both scenarios, there's an option to fall back to various customized SyncXML alternatives or scripting strategies.

Whichever path you're on an investigation of WS1 UEM's built-in profiles is in your future, so I'm going to cover that next. 

WS1 Win 10 Management Out Of The Box

Before diving into all the alternatives you should first investigate the built-in native Windows 10 payloads.   These payloads map to specific Configuration Service Providers (CSPs), essentially Microsoft's APIs for Windows 10 modern management.  Out of the box there are 30 payload types that configure hundreds of settings.  When you eyeball these payloads there's significant overlap with traditional AD GPOs.   Examples include payloads for password settings, BitLocker, Defender, Windows updates and Windows Firewall.

These built-in WS1 Win10 payloads aren't a complete substitute for the thousands of GPO settings known to mankind.   However, when you think tactically about what’s really essential for Win10 mobile management, what they do cover is formidable.  Given they are built-in capabilities, both easy to implement and maintain, it makes sense to exhaust them fully before exploring alternatives.

For a short but sweet description of WS1 Windows 10 modern management capabilities, check out this video by Chris Halstead, VMware Workspace ONE: Windows 10 Modern Management - Technical Introduction.  For a very dense and comprehensive overview, check out this video by Pat Linsky: VMware Workspace ONE UEM: Windows 10 Modern Management - Technical Overview.

The delta between WS1's built-in Win10 management capabilities and traditional AD GPO settings reminds me of a scene in Monty Python's Life Of Bryant.  While the revolutionaries rant about, "what have the romans ever done for us," they realize, oh yeah, they have done a lot, huh?  Likewise, while WS1 out of the box doesn't have full parity with traditional AD based GPOs, a lot of relevant GPO functionality has been addressed.  "Alright, but apart from Windows Updates, Anti-Virus, BitLocker, Firewall, certificates and settings associated with the other 23 built-in payloads, what has WS1 UEM ever done to replace traditional AD GPOs?"  Well, there's plenty of alternatives to explore, with Workspace ONE Baselines shining brightest.

Bazooka Baselines - The Duck-Billed Platypus Of WS1 GPO Alternatives

Workspace ONE Baselines, a component of WS1 Advanced edition, is, to say the least, one odd duck!  Essentially, it's an offering of 3 very different methods for pushing out settings to Windows 10 devices: Baseline Templates, Custom Baseline and a service catalog of ADMX-backed settings.  Through Baseline templates you apply 100's of settings at a time based off the Windows 10 Security Baseline or CIS Benchmarks.  This is useful for situations where you really want to heavily lock down a Windows 10 device according to industry standards and best practices.  It's ideal for a scenario where someone is looking to manage a Windows 10 device more like a purpose built mobile device.  We're talking about a wad of settings here, 380+ regarding Windows 1809 for example, so there's certainly some commitment involved, with a lot of settings you may have vet.  At first glance it can seem a bit unwieldy,  however you can disable or tweak out values for these settings individually as needed.

This solution offers some very compelling compliance reporting.   Each device with a Baseline assigned to it will report back as Compliant, Intermediate Compliance or Non-Compliant. Compliant represents having 100% of the settings actively applied while Intermediate Compliance represents having 99% to 85% of the settings implemented.  Anything less will report back as Non-Compliant.  By default Compliance status is reported at intervals of every 6 hours, so you get a fairly up to date reflection of the actual state of the device.  Even more impressive is the ability to zero in on a specific device and drill down into which particular settings are currently implemented versus settings that are non-compliant.

This granular reporting really sets the solution apart from other modern management alternatives. With other methods you can always test an individual device with tools like Policy Analyzer or RSoP, but with Baselines we're getting that functionality and insight built right into the UEM console.  Further, there's an option to leverage a registry setting that will force the reapplication of Baselines at a defined interval, ensuring your desired settings remain enforced.  This registry setting can get pushed out through a custom settings payload or manual registry edit, as specified in the latest guidance.

WS1 Baselines also offers a Custom Baseline option which involves pushing out an exported GPO rather than an industry standard template.  You can use Group Policy Manager or LGPO.exe to export a GPO from your current environment, then upload a zipped copy of that backup to the console.  Baselines will then go on to import that GPO on a target device using a local instance of LGPO.exe. 

Custom baselines are a nice little option to have in your back pocket.  If all else fails, do an export of your current AD GPOs and then just blast it out to your target devices.  However, there's two caveats.   One, you're not getting any kind of lifecycle management built into the UEM console.  If you want to make a change to a GPO setting getting pushed out, you'd have to go back to your AD environment, edit the original GPO, do another export, then do another import to Baselines. Also, you don't get the benefit of compliance reporting like you do with Baseline templates.  The latest guidance addresses these short coming quite succinctly with the statement, "You will find that custom baselines lack the ability for full lifecycle management such as, reporting and making edits directly via the console." 

Finally, a third capability of this solution involves a built in cloud based ADMX catalog.  Whether you're going with Baseline Templates or a custom Baseline, you have the option to add additional settings from this catalog.  Honestly, in my mind, this corollary to Baseline or Custom Baseline should be seen as it's own separate solution and represents the closest thing to an, "easy button," for configuring individual GPO settings with WS1.  We're talking a very extensive catalog, with some 4300 group policy settings to choose from. 

After you make your selection, the tool actually leverages functionality traditionally associated with Dynamic Environment Manager, what used to be called, "User Environment Manager."  It's really interesting to see how VMware has harnessed this traditional Horizon tool to round out WS1 Baselines.   Fortunately, this subset of Dynamic Environment Manager's capabilities it built right into the WS1 agent and doesn't require any additional installs.  Another piece of good news is that, like with Baseline templates, you do get compliance reported back regarding these ADMX-backed settings, so that's pretty awesome too.

To wrap things up, here are the three different mechanisms offered by WS1 Baselines:

I told you, this thing is weird, like Weird Al Yankovic weird.  Like a street performer playing Crocodile Rock on 9 separate musical instruments kind of weird.  That said, it sure does cast a wide net.  It's hard to imagine a GPO setting you couldn't theoretically push out with this tool one way or another.  

For a greenfield deployment or situation without a GPO legacy to mind, WS1 Baselines are a dream come true.  For that matter, it's still a very relevant and viable option for those looking to preserve a GPO legacy, with one major caveat.  It doesn't really look backwards at your environment or offer any analysis of what you're currently doing with GPOs.  So for an AD guy looking to preserve a legacy, even if you're determined to use Baselines, you'll still want to run AirLift for it's reporting capabilities.   I'm going to detail AirLift's Policies features next.

For additional info on Baselines, check out:

Official documentation: Using Baselines
Fantastic video: VMware Workspace ONE UEM: Baselines - Feature Walk-through
Latest Tech Zone guidance: Modernizing Group Policies Using Workspace ONE Baselines

AirLift - It's Not Just For SCCM Migrations

The release of AirLift 2.x in 2019 introduced assistance with GPO migrations, making it relevant to pretty much all WS1 customers, not just SCCM admins.  Sure, it's primarily focused on migrating folks from SCCM to WS1 UEM.  However, the subset of it's functionality that addresses AD group policies, Workspace ONE AirLift Policies, is applicable to any customer who has AD group policies they want to port over to modern management.   Further, it's free, with very minimal requirements that are well worth the price of admission.  After standing AirLift up and pointing it to your domain controllers you get an exhaustive report of all the GPOs within your domain, along with their associated settings.  Useful information returned includes which OUs these GPOs are assigned to so you know their current scope within your environment.  Most notably, you get feedback on why or why not such settings are suitable for modern management, as well as whether AirLift can automate the export of these GPO settings to UEM profiles for you.  This reporting functionality is invaluable for planning and GPO rationalization, something I'll come back to shortly.

Again, AirLift also offers an option to export group policies directly from Active Directory to your WS1 UEM environment.  This process is dependent on whether or not a specific GPO setting has a corresponding Configuration Service Provider (CSP).  CSPs represent Microsoft efforts to make Windows 10 a modern mobile operating system.  They're essentially APIs for configuring GPO settings on Win 10 through XML, what's called SyncML.  The Configuration Service Provider reference states, "A configuration service provider (CSP) is an interface to read, set, modify, or delete configuration settings on the device. These settings map to registry keys or files." Rumor has it that Microsoft has an army of geeks seeking to create CSPs for all relevant GPOs, but with over 3,000 group policy settings for Windows 10 and 1,800 IE settings, there's plenty of work to be done.

In a nutshell, where it's possible, AirLift generates custom SyncML required to set the GPO settings through supported CSPs.  This SyncML in turn is configured as the payload in a custom Windows 10 UEM profile that can then be assigned to your target devices through Smart Groups.  If you like, the utility offers the option to combine multiple exportable GPOs as a a payload into a single custom profile.  Further, it can also export some 3rd party ADMX policies such as Google or Office.

Before charging ahead with AirLift's export capabilities, you should first leverage it's reporting capabilities for some critical GPO rationalization.  That's a topic I'm going to review next.

For additional info on AirLift, check out:

Official Documentation:  Introduction to VMware Workspace ONE AirLift
Great Video: VMware Workspace ONE AirLift: Windows 10 Migration - Expert Panel
Latest Tech Zone Guidance: Using Workspace ONE AirLift to Analyze Group Policies

GPO Rationalization 

GPO Migration Strategy [Graphic]. (2018). Retrieved June 2020 from Developing A Modern Management Adoption Process

With AirLift reporting in hand you're well positioned to begin rationalizing your GPOs.  As with house moving, it's best to throw away as much as you can rather than get caught up transporting stuff you really don't need.  Perhaps a GPO setting is inherently dependent on domain membership.  Maybe a GPO setting isn't applicable to the latest version of Windows 10, remote users or is just a vestige that's no longer relevant to your enterprise.  Whatever the reason,  if it doesn't have a place in the world of mobile Windows 10 management you need to let it go.  So, rather than trying to port everything over, "just in case," it's best to start with some house cleaning.

After zeroing in on the GPO's that matter to you, the next question to ask is, "what of these settings are accommodated by the native capabilities of WS1 UEM?"  This essentially amounts to, "of these settings which ones are both supported by CSPs AND WS1's built-in Win10 profiles?"  WS1's built-in profiles are reliant on CSPs, so for anything AirLift reports as not being supported by a CSP, you can spare yourself the search.  However, for any settings reported as exportable you'll want to search for a match in the UEM console or Windows Desktop Device Management guide.

For functionality not covered by the built-in UEM profiles, there's a judgement call to be made between leveraging WS1 Baselines or AirLift's policy export option.  

Baselines or AirLift Exports? Another Key Decision Point

If a GPO setting isn't supported by a CSP WS1 Baselines is probably your best bet. However, let's say there's a GPO setting that isn't accommodated by native WS1 UEM functionality, but does have support from CSPs.  Let's take it a step further and say not only is it supported by a CSP, but it's also reported by AirLift as exportable.  Should you proceed with the AirLift export option or should you investigate Baselines?  The latest VMware guidance describes this dilemma as making a choice between, "Modernize or Migrate."  

A lot of the decision hinges on what kind of administrative and lifecycle capabilities you'll need going forward.  There's also a question of how much time and energy you have in the short term.  If all you your settings are supported by the AirLift export option, you're just a few clicks away from a migration.  With Baselines there's probably going to be more up front work, as you manually map out your GPO settings or vet excess settings associated with the templates,  but you get a big fat gui at your disposal from start to finish.  In the future this gui provides a straight forward process for pushing out updates or changes to your policy.  Further, you get granular and up to date compliance reporting on all these settings, along with the ability to reinforce them.  The case is very different if you choose to leverage AirLift's export functionality.  While AirLift may provided a very fast and automated method for migrating your GPOs, it doesn't offer a mechanism for managing these settings going forward.  Essentially, you get your GPO setting, or settings plural, combined into a big wad of SyncML that in turn is added as a payload to a custom profile.

Now, should you want to tweak out the settings pushed out by this profile you'll have two major options going forward.  One, you can edit the SyncML manually or through the assistance of Policy Builder, both of which require some skill.  It's doable, but not for the faint of heart.  A second option would be to edit the original AD GPO, then attempt a new export with AirLfit.  That's a bit unsavory and hardly feels like freedom from AD GPOs.  It feels more like a trial separation at best.  Contrast this with making an update on an existing Baseline, where you make gui guided edits on the UEM console directly, push the new settings out, then later receive confirmation the settings have been implemented.

From the user's perspective there's no perceivable difference between a setting pushed out with a CSP versus Baselines.  What's really a stake is administrative overhead and lifecycle capabilities going forward. With the AirLift export option you get something akin to an easy button for migrating your AD GPOs where CSPs support them, but limited manageability moving forward.  With a transition to WS1 Baselines their might be more work up front,  but there's simpler on-going manageability and a more promising shot at freedom from on-premises dependencies.  Where possible, I would recommend aiming for Baselines adoption, assuming you have the WS1 Advanced licenses required for it.  However, the ideal path forward for you is going to depend on your circumstances. 

For a really interesting analysis on this decision point check out the section titled, Choosing The Correct Policy Delivery Model, in the latest Tech Zone guidance.

Additional CSP Options

If AirLift isn't feasible or it's export function needs customization or augmentation, VMware's documentation calls out 3 other CSP based options.  All involve tweaking out SyncML that's delivered through a Custom Settings profile.   One option is to leverage sample SyncML from the VMware Sample Exchange.  Another is to generate it using a Fling called Policy Builder.   Finally, a third option is to leverage the Microsoft CSP Development Suite.   Of these 3 choices, I find Policy Builder the most accessible and promising. 

To get access to Policy Builder, navigate to and login with your My VMware account.  After selecting which version of Windows 10 you're focusing on you'll get presented with relevant CSPs. 

There's a very wide range of depth and capabilities amongst these different CSPs.  For example, the Accounts CSP has only two configurations options.  On the other hand the Policy CSP has an absolutely mind blowing range of options.  If you browse to Microsoft's Configuration Service Provider reference and select the Policy CSP, you'll see that the settings go on for days. Go ahead. I dare you. See how many scrolls it takes to get through the entire list.  It's a whole lot of configuration options at your finger tips.

For this example, while configuring the Policy CSP within Policy Builder navigate to Device --> Config --> Start.   Here you'll find a boat load of start menu settings.  Zero in on the options to hide the sign out and sleep options from the start menu.  By researching these specific settings within the CSP service provider reference you'll discover that a value of 1 enables these settings.   After punching in the number 1, SyncML is automatically generated on the right hand side of the page.  Clicking the ADD button updates the SyncML to what's required for implementing this setting.   The process is the same for the Hide Sleep option.

Copy this generated SyncML into the Custom Settings payload of a new profile.  For the remove settings, simply go back to Policy Builder and click on the Delete button instead of Add.   The SyncML will change on the right accordingly, replacing <Add> with <Delete>.  Copy this SyncML into the Remove Settings section.  

After assigning this profile to an endpoint you'll see the desired results.  As expected, there's no sleep option on the power button and no sign-on off option on the user start menu option.

Again, when you consider the vastness of something like the Policy CSP, this Policy Builder option is definitely worth more than an honorable mention.  Yeah, it's not as nice as the completely supported processes offered by WS1 Baselines or AirLift.  However, if you're someone who likes to tinker, oh boy!  There's a lot to work with here.

For additional info on Policy Builder, check out:

Latest Tech Zone Guidance: Modernize Group Policies Using VMware Policy Builder
Excellent Overview:  Introducing VMware Policy Builder: The Quick and Simple Way To Build Your Windows 10 Custom Settings

But wait, there's more! 

So if for some reason you just have to say no to AirLift, Baselines or CSPs, no worries, there's more options.   One is the GPO Migration tool, an alternative that's been around for a couple years now.  This tool is similar to the Custom Baseline option in that it leverages GPO backups that are then pushed out to target devices.  While this isn't a fully supported tool, it's certainly an interesting fall back option.  If nothing else, it's a wonderful example of what can be done if someone rolls up their sleeves and decides to get-er-done.  

With WS1 provisioning packages in our back pocket we essentially have an elevated command prompt available on any of our managed Win10 devices.  Well, there's an awful lot that can be done with a command prompt and script if you put your mind to it.  Further, there's an option to push out registry changes directly from a Custom Settings profile in UEM.   This option gets called out in the appendix of the latest guidance, which references the blog post, "How To Set Registry Values Using The Custom Setting Profile In Workspace ONE UEM."   Given that a large majority of GPO settings essentially map out to registry settings, there's a lot of ground you could cover with this option alone.  

Additional Resources For Reporting On GPOs

If you can't run AirLift, need to augment AirLift reporting or just want a quick look at a specific policy with minimal overhead, there's Microsofts own MDM Migration Analysis Tool, MMAT. Unlike AirLift, it wont give you an exhaustive enterprise view of all your GPOs and applicable modern management equivalents.  However, on whatever target system you run it on it will analyze the GPOs currently assigned to that system and report back on the feasibility of migrating them to modern management.  Also, as previously mentioned, there's Microsoft's Configuration service provider reference that details the Windows 10 CSPs developed for modern management.  If there's a specific setting you're interested in making customized SyncML for it makes sense to dive into this reference.

And Get Yourself Free

The subject of WS1's modern management alternatives for GPO settings sits at the intersection of two very different worlds.  On one end of the spectrum you have an MDM admin who, though possibly a brilliant tech, has never touched a production domain controller in their life.  At the other end of the spectrum you've got a grizzled AD veteran who's managed enterprises desktops with GPOs for decades.  They're two very different kinds of people with different expectations and priorities when it comes to AD GPOs.  That their needs for GPO settings overlap may very well be the only thing they have in common.  Accordingly, they're likely to require different paths on the journey to modern management.

For the traditional MDM guy or someone who doesn't have an AD legacy to preserve, I'd say start with a careful investigation of all built-in WS1 capabilities, then move on to to fill in any gaps through Baselines.   On the other hand, if you're in an organization with significant investment in GPOs and need to port that legacy to modern management, the path ideally begins with AirLift. With that reporting you get your arms around what's going on in your environment, size up your challenges and rationalize your GPOs.  Then thoroughly investigate the built in capabilities of UEM.  You may find a lot of what you need is already built into the tool.  From there, investigate Baselines and then fall back to AirLift's export capabilities.  If there's still challenges, you can turn to the other CSP options,  the GPO Migration Tool or various other DIY alternatives imaginable. 

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