April 24, 2014

How to manage your PCs and devices from the cloud

Windows Intune is good value insurance for SMBs.

A key benefit of the cloud productivity suite Microsoft Office 365 is that it frees users from the burden of looking after IT systems that power their business. The responsibility is shifted over to Microsoft to keep the systems running and up to date.

However, a critical component of cloud services such as Office 365 is the access device itself – in many cases case the desktop computer.

For the most part computers tend to look after themselves. If you accept the defaults when setting up Windows it should automatically update itself and have some anti-virus functionality provided by Windows Defender. While this level of built-in coverage is good – is it enough?

What happens when a virus cripples a PC? In the past this would be a very costly exercise to clean it, then give up, extract the data and either re-install the operating system or (depending on the age of the hardware) set up a new PC. For customers on Office 365 this is less of a pain as mailbox contents and files are now in the cloud and automatically protected against viruses.

However, a virus interruption of any kind still impacts the user and disrupts business.

Other costs to business can come from simple things such as deploying software to desktops, or ensuring that updates are installed. As software vendors crack down on piracy it is important to also be able to keep track of licence usage in order to remain compliant – otherwise the penalties can be steep!

A big challenge that SMBs face is the common practice of giving users full administrative rights to their computers. This is quite often done as a time saver to assist with software deployment, updates and system changes however it can also lead to system instability and software violations as staff can install whatever they want to their computers.

While medium and large organisations have been able to benefit from systems management platforms which keep desktops under control, this technology has been out of reach for SMBs due to the costs involved.

In March 2011 Microsoft addressed this issue with the release of a desktop management product targeted specifically at SMBs known as Windows Intune.

At launch the product was relatively limited in its functionality (as you would expect for a version 1 release), however quite feature rich for what SMBs would normally expect. Core functionality include anti-virus, Microsoft patch management, hardware and software inventory and asset tracking, remote support and a licence to upgrade eligible desktops to Windows 7 Enterprise.

The October 2011 release added cloud storage for software deployment, third-party licence tracking and patch management.

Microsoft has committed to releasing a new update to Windows Intune approximately every six months. As such the next release of Intune is around the corner with additional features such as multiple device support per licence, a company portal where users can select from apps to install (like your own “marketplace”), and increased cloud storage. A key addition to the new version is Mobile Device Management (MDM) which is a necessary addition in this age of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

At $15 per licence per month Windows Intune can appear cost-prohibitive on the surface, however when you factor in all the features as well as the ability to upgrade to Windows 8 for free – it’s very good value for SMBs.

 

Loryan Strant is a Microsoft Office 365 MVP (Most Valuable Professional). Follow him on Twitter @TheCloudMouth.

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