Microsoft's Vision for the Replaceable PC

Microsoft's Vision for the Replaceable PC

Centralizing data in the cloud frees your PC too

Looking again at some forward-leaning TechEd 2013 content, this week I'll examine Microsoft's vision for the "replaceable PC." On the face of things, the technologies that enable this movement are already in place and some have even been around for years. But like a good soup, it's the combination of ingredients that makes something special out of the ordinary. And for many businesses today, the notion of a replaceable PC is still more of a goal than a reality.

If you want to learn more about the Microsoft approach to the replaceable PC, please be sure to check out the TechEd session "The Replaceable PC," starring Stephen Rose of Microsoft Springboard fame.

As with many business-oriented technologies, I view the issue here in terms of the individual and then extrapolate up. For example, in the distant past I'd prepare for a business trip by making sure that my laptop was up to date, not just with software updates but with all of my relevant data, which back then consisted of recent documents, any in-progress articles, my entire music collection with podcasts for device syncing, and some movies for those occasional times of relaxation. I'd also back up a set of disks that included everything needed to reinstall Windows and all my key apps, as well as backed up data, in the event of a disaster.

While the details have changed over the years—the disks started off as CD-R and then morphed into various recordable DVD types, and then a variety of USB-based hard disks joined this traveling disaster recovery toolkit, for example—it wasn't until a year or so ago that I finally started to dial back the crazy. But it wasn't any personal growth that made this possible, it was technology.

Services such as Live Mesh, and then SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro, have made it possible to sync my most important data to the cloud, so I no longer need to worry about carting around data backups. My music and podcasts are on my phone, and if I need to watch a movie, that's what my thin and light Kindle HD is for.

Applications now install almost universally from the cloud, including especially Office, which is part of my Office 365 subscription. (There are some exceptions, but the days of needing an "app install" disc are long over.)

And then there's the OS. With the advent of Windows 8, it's possible to a do a quick PC reset and be up and running with a clean OS image within several short minutes. Anyone who doesn't believe that this is magical simply hasn't used it yet. (OK, there are caveats, and the truly compulsive should always bring a USB recovery stick just in case.)

The replaceable PC that Microsoft speaks of is an automated and enterprise-ready version of my own disaster recovery scheme and, like that scheme, it's evolved over the years. The TechEd 2013 presentation noted above described a set of technologies that are currently available but where possible I'll annotate that list with some coming updates that will make things even better.

Active Directory and Group Policy. Implicitly required, of course.

Folder direction and offline files. These are the old-timers in the group, and versions of these technologies have been around for over a decade. With folder redirection, you can cause a user's data folders—My Documents, Documents, and so on—to redirect to a location on a corporate file server so it's centrally located. And using offline files, you can cache that data on the users' PCs so they can use it offline. Mr. Rose didn't cover this, but those who adopt Windows Server 2012 R2 will be able to use a more elegant feature called Work Folders, which is basically an in-house way to do SkyDrive/SkyDrive Pro-style document sync between the workplace and users' PCs.

User Experience Virtualization (UE-V). This technology, which is part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) and is thus available only to Software Assurance (SA) customers, is a gem. It lets you roam users' OS and application settings between devices so that they always receive the same customized environment wherever they sign in. Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft is building in some UE-V-like features to Windows 8/RT with the Windows 8.1 update as well, and these will be GP-controllable of course. Check out "In Blue: Business Features in Windows 8.1" for a list of what's changing.

App-V. Another member of the MDOP suite, Microsoft Application Virtualization, or App-V, lets admins centrally package virtualized application packages that can be quickly deployed and run on users' PCs, even when offline. App-V used to get dings on a few counts—in the original version, App-V applications were clearly not native applications, for example—but it's improved a lot over the years and lets larger organizations treat applications like centrally managed services that can't stomp all over other applications on users' PCs.

System Center Configuration Manager. When you think about the changes sweeping the industry these days, the emergence of users with multiple devices and the resulting multi-PC/device licensing moves that Microsoft has made are among the most dramatic. Most enterprise admins probably know that System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) is the key to managing complex environments. But many of those in smaller environments are likely unaware of Windows Intune, a lightweight, cloud-based PC and device management service that is both a companion and alternative to SCCM in different situations. In the coming wave of updates, Intune is being updated to include a number of useful new features, such as better SCCM integration, Mobile Device Management (MDM), and connectivity with Office 365. You can find out more in my "Windows Intune 5 Preview."

Every time I leave my house for parts unknown and I ponder the lightness of my carry-on bag, I'm thankful that technology has improved to include not just lighter hardware but cloud-based access to the data and applications I need, no matter where I am. And if that PC is lost or stolen, heaven forbid, I know that I can be up and running, literally in minutes, on any PC anywhere. This is a big change from my early days carting around compulsive backup discs, and it's one that can even more positively impact businesses regardless of size. Microsoft's replaceable PC is a great place to start.

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