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Managing Change through Group Policy (part 3) - Working with GPO tools

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7/18/2013 6:01:19 PM

3. Working with GPO tools

GPOs are managed through a series of different tools. You've already had a look at the Local Security Policy console and you've created a custom console for the management of multiple LSPs. Each of these tools gave you a foretaste of central GPO management. Now, you can access the best GPO management tools.

NOTE

You must run the GPMC from a Vista computer if you want to control all of the settings that apply to Vista. You can also rely on the GPMC found in Windows Server 2008, but it is rare that organizations rely on servers to manage GPOs.

The first tool is the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC). Prior to Service Pack 1, the GPMC was located on every Vista system in your network. It did not however have an available shortcut, even in Administrative Tools. To start the GPMC, you needed to type GPMC.MSC in the Search box under the Start Menu and press Enter. Doing so launches a UAC prompt. Accept the prompt to open the console. Remember that you must use a domain account to do so.

In Vista SP1, you must download and install the GPMC separately because Service Pack 1 removes the GPMC from Vista PCs when it is applied. You must then install the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) update to get access to this console once more. 

As shown in Figure 8, the GPMC is divided into several different sections. By default, the GPMC opens with the current AD forest selected. To view its contents, you must expand the forest in the Tree pane. After it is expanded, the GPMC Tree pane lists the following items:

  • Domains: They contain normal domain contents.

  • OUs: The main structure you use to apply GPOs.

  • Group Policy Objects: The container for all GPOs.

  • WMI filters: The container that includes filters you can assign to GPOs based on Windows Management Instrumentation queries or queries that let you identify systems based on specific selection criteria. Criteria can include available disk space, model type, manufacturer name, and any other object you can use to identify systems.

  • Sites: The container that lists all of the sites in your AD structure.

  • Group Policy Modeling: Allows you to perform "what if" scenarios with GPOs to help determine how systems or users would be affected by GPO changes.

  • Group Policy Results: Lets you view Resultant Set of Policy (RSoP) results on a specific object. This tool is very valuable when you try to determine why systems are not behaving as you would expect.

In addition to the listed items, the GPMC includes GPO Links. Links are differentiated from actual GPOs by their icon. The link icon includes a small arrow to show that it is a shortcut to the actual GPO. All actual GPOs are stored in the GPO container and cannot be removed from this container. To apply a GPO to a given object, you need to link it to that object. Both links and GPOs will contain properties, but these properties will differ between the two. For example, the Enforced attribute is not actually applied to a GPO, it is applied to a GPO Link. You can however edit a GPO's content and properties by editing a link. The GPMC will alert you that you are working with a link instead of the actual GPO as shown in Figure 9. Do not check the Do not show this message again if you want to know each time you are working with a link instead of a GPO option.

Figure 8. Working with the Group Policy Management Console

Figure 9. The GPMC Link warning

The items in the Details pane vary with the objects you select in the Tree pane, but when a GPO or a GPO Link is selected, the GPMC will list four tabs in the Details pane. These tabs outline various details for each GPO. Scope will outline how the GPO is applied. It lists where the GPO is linked, which Security Filter is applied and which WMI Filter is applied. By default, all GPOs are filtered to Authenticated Users, a special group that includes both user and computer accounts, and do not include any WMI Filter. You can control the application of a GPO by modifying the group to which it applies under Security Filtering. For example, if you wanted a GPO to apply only to the Finance Users group, you would modify its Security Filtering by removing Authenticated Users and adding a security group named Finance Users.

Security filtering is also useful when you do not want to create multiple links for a GPO. For example, in an organization with multiple regional sites, you might create an OU for each region and create the corresponding PCs and People structures inside each Regional OU. When it comes to linking GPOs to this OU structure you have two choices. First, you can choose to link the GPO to each appropriate OU, creating as many links as required and having to manage all of these links. Second, you can create a security group that regroups all objects of one type — PCs, Desktops, Mobile Systems, and People — and then link the appropriate GPO to the entire domain so that all objects are affected, but filter this GPO with the appropriate security group. Only the members in this group will have access to the contents of the GPO, all others will ignore it. The difference between both strategies is shown in Figure 10. Ideally, you will create a central OU structure and limit the use of Security Filtering or the creation of multiple GPO links.

Figure 10. Options for using a Regional OU Structure

The second tab of the Details pane of the GPMC, Details, lists the name of the GPO, its owner, when it was created and modified, its version, unique ID, and status. The Settings tab lists the settings that have been enabled in the GPO. The Delegation tab lets you view who can control this GPO. For example, PC-related GPOs should be delegated to PC administrators.

The GPMC offers several GPO management features:

  • You can create and link GPOs.

  • You can backup, restore, and otherwise protect GPOs.

  • You can create OUs to better manage GPO application, but you cannot control the contents of the OU.

  • You can create WMI Filters and apply them to GPOs.

  • You can view AD sites and assign GPOs to them, but you cannot create new sites.

  • You can perform "what if" GPO modeling.

  • You can troubleshoot GPO settings by performing Resultant Set of Policy analyses.

  • You can generate reports on your GPOs.

  • You can import settings from GPO templates into GPOs.

  • You can migrate GPOs from one domain to another.

  • You can link to other domains or forests in your network.

  • You can delegate portions of the console to other groups so that they can manage GPO contents and/or application.

Overall, this tool provides powerful GPO management features.


Creating a Group Policy Object

The creation process for GPOs is relatively simple:

  1. Right-click the Group Policy Objects container and select New.

  2. In the New dialog box, name the GPO with a clear name outlining its purpose and click OK. At this point, the GPO is created inside the GPO container, but it does not include any modified settings and it is not applied to any object.

  3. Now that the GPO is created, right-click on it and select Edit. Doing this opens another GPO management tool, the Group Policy Editor (GPEdit). GPEdit lets you view all of the settings you can control in the policy as shown in Figure 11. As mentioned before, each policy is divided into two sections: computer settings and user settings. GPEdit is a live editing tool. There is no save feature. Each time you make a change, you've modified the GPO. This is one more reason why you need to be careful when working with GPOs.

    1. To make modifications, navigate to the portion you want to modify through the Tree pane, move to the setting you want to control in the Details pane, and double-click on it. Choose the setting you want in the dialog box and click OK.

    2. When a section includes multiple settings, you can simply move from one to the next by using the Next Setting button. This automatically makes your modification and moves to the next setting. Also note that each time you select a setting, its description will be displayed in the Details pane.

    Figure 11. Working with the Group Policy Editor
  4. When you have completed your modifications, close GPEdit and return to the GPMC. Review the changed settings by clicking on the policy name in the GPO container, then moving to the Settings tab in the Details pane. Make sure that all of the settings you wanted to modify have been updated before proceeding. If something is amiss, then launch GPEdit again.

  5. Now, you're ready to apply the GPO. To do this, you need to link it to a container. Drag and drop the GPO to a destination container, whether it is a site, a domain, or an OU. Make sure that the destination for the link exists before you try to link it. When you link the GPO, GPMC will ask if you are sure; click OK to continue and generate the link.

    NOTE

    GPOs are not "live," that is, they do not affect any objects until they are linked to a destination container. This means you can create GPOs in the Group Policy Objects container in the GPMC, edit them as much as you need, and when you feel you have them right, link them to their final destination. This provides a form of change control over the GPOs you create.

  6. Now that the GPO is linked, you can modify the link properties. Possible changes include applying the Enforced attribute, disabling Computer or User sections of the GPO, and so on. For example, you should disable the User section if the GPO is targeted at PCs and vice versa when it is targeted at users.

  7. Review the container's properties. Remember that containers such as OUs can also include attributes that affect GPOs. For example, you might need to apply the Block Inheritance attribute to the OU. Blocking inheritance is useful when you want to store objects in your container and you want to give them different settings than those that are set globally.

NOTE

Use the Enforced and Block Inheritance attributes sparingly because they can greatly complicate your GPO management efforts.

That's it. Simple, isn't it? Yet, GPOs provide one of the most powerful management capabilities in Windows. Take the time to explore the various settings that are available in each GPO. Make sure that you use a Vista PC to run the GPEdit tool, otherwise you will not have access to all of Vista's GPO settings.

It is easily possible to apply any number of GPOs to objects. It is also easy to become confused with GPOs. The organizational unit structure has a direct impact on how GPOs are applied. Rely on it to keep your GPO application structure straight.

Also, backup each of the GPOs you create each time you create or modify a GPO. Store the backups in a safe place. You'll need to rely on them to restore your policies in the event of a system breakdown.

Working with Windows Server 2008 Group Policies

In Windows Server 2008, Microsoft has added even more functionality to Group Policy. In addition to the standard division between computers and users, each section of a Group Policy Object now includes two subsections as shown in Figure 12. The first, Policy, contains the actual policy contents. This changes the path to all policy settings. For example, in previous versions of Windows, the path to Software Settings was Computer Configuration\Software Settings. In Windows Server 2008, the path is now Computer Configuration\Policy\Software Settings.

Figure 12. A Windows Server 2008 GPO

The reason for the change is the new second section of GPOs: Preferences. This section now controls specific client-side settings and can be used to reduce post-installation configuration tasks. Preferences includes two subsections: Windows Settings and Control Panel Settings. You use each to remotely configure system settings on any Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1, Windows Vista, or Windows Server 2008 machine.

The contents of the Preferences section and the components you can control through it are described in Table 3. The big difference between Preferences and Policies is that users are allowed to reset the changes made to their computers through the Preferences section. Changes made by the Policies section are permanent unless modified centrally. However, using the Preferences section can often greatly reduce the need for logon scripts. Using the Preferences section is, after all, much easier than writing a Visual Basic or even a PowerShell script.

Table 3. The Preferences Section of a WS08 GPO
Preferences SubsectionSettingApplication
Windows SettingsApplicationsLets you configure multiple application-specific settings through custom plug-ins. For example, plug-ins for Microsoft Office are available at (http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=90745). A Group Policy development kit is available at (http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=144).
 Drive MapsCreate, modify, delete or hide dynamic drive mappings using the user's credentials or alternate credentials.
 EnvironmentCreate, modify, or delete user or system environment variables. Variables can also be used as conditions for other preference settings.
 FilesCopy, modify, or delete a file on a system. Also modifies the attributes of a file.
 FoldersCopy, modify, or delete a folder on a system. Can rely on conditions. For example, you can delete a folder only if it is empty.
 INI FilesAdd, replace, or delete settings in existing .ini or .inf files or even delete an entire .ini or .inf file.
 Network SharesCreate, modify, or delete a file share on a system. Can also modify user limits, Access-based Enumeration settings, or comments on a share.
 RegistryCreate, replace, or delete entries in the registry. Can also copy multiple settings from one system and add them to other systems. Relies on a wizard to create multiple entries.
 ShortcutsCreate, modify, or delete a shortcut.
Control Panel SettingsData SourcesCreate, modify, or delete data sources.
 DevicesEnable or disable different device classes or specific hardware types on target systems. For example, can be used to control USB device classes.
 Folder OptionsConfigures folder options and file associations.
 Internet Settings (IE)Configure IE settings. Supports IE 5, 6, and 7.
 Local Users and GroupsControl the contents of the local users and groups contained in member servers and PCs belonging to the domain.
 Network OptionsConfigure virtual private network (VPN) or dial-up networking connections.
 Power OptionsConfigure power settings on Windows XP or Windows Server 2003. To configure Power Options for Vista and WS08, use the Administrative Templates | System | Power Management section of either Computer or User Policy settings.
 PrintersConfigure multiple printer connections for a system.
 Regional OptionsControl regional options.
 Scheduled TasksCreate, modify, or delete scheduled tasks. Can be used to run commands as soon as GPOs refresh, automate recurring tasks, wake computers from sleep mode, or even launch processes when users log on without requiring a script.
 ServicesModify the configuration of existing services.
 Start MenuControl the structure and the options of the Start menu. Can also be used to add read-only sections of the Start menu while letting users control the read-write sections. Supports Start menu standardization.
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