Whenever the topic of working with desktops in business is brought up, IT Pro’s always want to manage and maintain those desktops. For me the first thing that always come to mind is Group Policy and hopefully does for you as well. Group Policy is one of the primary tools you can quickly leverage to help control your IT infrastructure. What better way to manage our desktops than with a free tool that is built into Active Directory, and has been there since the Windows NT days.
In today’s post I am going to take a look at some of the new features in Windows 8.1 Group Policy as well as some of the new settings you will want to learn to leverage to help manage your desktops. Oh, by the way you can still change the user's desktop background to blue, with blue labels on the shortcuts, or put the logoff command in the log in script, if you are so inclined not that I have ever done that.
Now if you are not familiar with Group Policy I would highly recommend you start here: Group Policy for Beginners The article will help you get familiar with how Group Policy works and how it is configured.
New Settings in Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 has a lot of new Group Policy settings from controlling the Start Screen to controlling the caching mode of Group Policy and everything in between. So where can you go to learn about all the settings? The best place to start is the Group Policy Settings reference. This is a spreadsheet you can download and has all the group policy settings documented for you to review. It also provides some nice filtering tools. Specifically you can filter for polices that are new to Windows 8.1, by filtering the last column New in 8.1 to True. (Thanks Keith for the tip) You can download the settings reference file here:
The rest of this article will focus on some useful new settings including policy caching and settings to help you control the Start Screen.
Group Policy Caching
New in Windows Server 2012 R2 group policy caching helps speed up your group policy processing when you are in synchronous mode processing. Before I go any further, in Group Policy there are two modes of how policies are processed by the client, synchronous and asynchronous. This mode impacts how fast policy is processed and ultimately when a user sees the login screen.
- Synchronous: at a high level, this processing mode will make sure Group Policy is processed in order and the user will not be presented with the login screen until all the policies have been processed.
- Asynchronous: this processing mode is going to try to get to the login in screen as fast as it can during system start up. Potentially this means you may be able to login while Group Policy is still processing in the background. You may have heard of this setting before as it was known as Fast Logon, which was introduced in Windows XP.
With Policy caching when your system gets the latest version of a policy from the domain controller, it writes that policy to a local store. Then if Group Policy is running in synchronous mode the next time the computer reboots, it reads the most recently downloaded version of the policy from the local store, instead of downloading it from the network. This is especially important if you have a latent connection to the domain controller, for example, with DirectAccess or for computers that are off premises. To configure this you will need to modify the Configure Group Policy Caching policy, and that is found in this location: Computer Configuration\Administrative Templates\
To take a more in detailed look at Group Policy Caching take a look here: Understanding Group Policy Caching in Windows 8.1
Managing the Start Screen
One of the new improvements to Windows 8.1 group policy is the ability to manage the Start Screen. In previous operating systems you also had many ways to control the start menu, desktop layout, and many other settings to help manage your users experience when they logged on. There are two areas we will take a look at in this section. First we will take a look at customizing the start screen layout. Secondly you will see how you can start the users on the desktop instead of the Start Screen.
Customizing the Start Screen begins with building a desktop with the Start Screen layout that meets your corporate requirements. Once that is done then you get to use our friend PowerShell and the Export-StartLayout cmdlet to export your Start Screen layout into an .xml or .bin file. To learn more about the cmdlet take a look here: Export-StartLayout. The PowerShell command would look something like this, if you wanted to save an .xml file to the d: drive.
Export-StartLayout -Path "d:\startlayout.xml" -As XML
Once you have the file created, you will want to place the file in a shared folder on one of servers that your desktops can access, for example you could place the files on share in your DC. Then you will need to configure the Start Screen Layout policy located here: Administrative Templates\Start Menu and Taskbar in either User Configuration or Computer Configuration. This then will allow you to control the layout of the desktops for the users you apply the policy to. For a deeper look and how to set this up as well as configuring this locally take a look here:
Lastly, let’s take a look at how to start your users on the desktop. As I mentioned in my article on the Start Screen, Windows 8.1 for Business- Oh Start menu, how do I miss thee…or do I , my favorite app is the desktop when I am working. My teammate Jennelle showed you how to start on the desktop by hand in her article, Beloved Desktop, Where Art Thou. Now let’s take a look at how easy this is to do with Group Policy.
The policy you will want to set is the Go to the desktop instead of Start when signing in or when all the apps on a screen are closed This policy will start your users right on the desktop when the login. You can find this policy here: User Configuration\Administrative Templates\Start Menu and Taskbar .
This article took a look at just a couple of the new policies settings for Windows 8.1 desktop. However, do not forgot the 1000’s of other policy settings at your fingertips or that you can also use Group Policy to manage your servers as well.
I hope you enjoyed a look at Group Policy and Windows 8.1 and we hope you are enjoying the series, and if you missed any of the Windows 8.1 for business series you can find them here: https://aka.ms/Win814Biz