Client OSD in a future without wired Ethernet connections.

Client OSD in a future without wired Ethernet connections.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the majority of Windows computers used these days are laptops or hybrid tables (like the Surface). It also won’t have escaped your notice that the majority of these laptops and tablets ship without a wired ethernet port. Given the likely continuation of this trend, what does this mean for the future of client operating system deployment?

For most organizations, client operating system deployment involves dropping a prepared image over a multicast transmission to multiple computers connected to a wired network. This is straightforward when you have desktop computers sitting on a desk, each of which is connected to the network via a CAT5 or CAT6 cable.

This method of client operating system deployment was also straightforward when almost all laptop computers included built in ethernet ports that you could plug CAT5 or CAT6 cables into.

In their never ending quest for “thinness”, newer laptop and tablet computers eschew ethernet ports. PXE deployment for computers that don’t have Ethernet ports is a bit hit and miss. While you can certainly purchase USB Ethernet adapters, not all of them support PXE boot (either because the computer doesn’t recognize them without an operating system managing them or because the scaled down hardware doesn’t allow PXE booting).

Even Microsoft’s flagship Surface Pro didn’t wasn’t enabled for PXE boot at launch. PXE boot was only possible on a Surface Pro after it was released if you performed a firmware update and had a Surface USB Ethernet adapter. (if you are interested in how to do this, consult http://blogs.technet.com/b/deploymentguys/archive/2013/05/16/pxe-deployment-with-surface-pro.aspx )

So, as more and more organizations provision people with laptops and tablets for their day to day work and more and more laptops and tablets forgo a built in ethernet port, we, as IT Pros are likely going to need an alternate method of performing refresh and wipe and load operations?

We’ve seen hints of alternatives already from Microsoft and we’ll probably hear more about the future of how we handle computer provisioning with announcements from Ignite. The hints suggest that rather than dropping a new image to erase the old, we’ll do a factory reset on a computer in the same way that we might factory reset a phone. That there will be no need for a complete format and reinstall because the same effect will be achieved through an option available in a control panel.

Rather than provision the computer with apps in the image, apps will simply install automatically over the network once the new device owner signs on for the first time.

PXE deployment of operating system images isn’t going to go away, but for an increasing number of computers that don’t come with built in ethernet ports, it is a method full of compromises.

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