Autopilot speeds up Windows 10 image deployment inside Microsoft

Dec 12, 2019   |  

The first experience a new employee has at Microsoft shouldn’t be waiting for their laptop to get set up.

“We’re transforming the experience our employees have when they first turn on their PCs,” says Sean MacDonald, a principal group program manager in Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). “Our employees expect a best-in-class experience and we’ve been working hard to deliver that to them. The best part is that all of our customers can have the exact same experience.”

It used to take up to an hour to get Windows 10 running on a new or rebuilt PC—that was before CSEO started using Windows Autopilot, a new deployment program that automates most of the setup process. With this new program developed in partnership with the Windows and Intune teams, the user receives a device with the latest image directly from the OEM and all the user needs to do is power on, connect to any internet connection, authenticate, and the rest is silently hydrated via Microsoft Intune.

“Now, with Autopilot, we’re seeing it take less than 10 minutes to set up a device,” MacDonald says. “We’ve reduced the user’s set up time by 90 percent.”

After piloting the technology, CSEO started a soft launch in October using Autopilot for select new devices, says Mina Aitelhadj, a program manager on CSEO’s Modern Device Platform Team.

Microsoft is using an OEM-developed (original equipment manufacturer) image on all devices where Autopilot is being used. The goal is for CSEO to evolve to the point where it is using Autopilot with Intune provisioning to image all new devices by January.

Microsoft is one of the first enterprises to use Autopilot in a full, modern management scenario.

“Our early testing and deployment inside of Microsoft will help us provide best practices and guidelines for our customers when they are ready to move onto a fully modern Azure platform,” Aitelhadj says.

Getting to this point has been challenging, she says.

Like any large enterprise, the Microsoft environment is complex. Company employees work in all kinds of different roles, and they rely on a wide variety of devices to support that work. This variety of device choices made it challenging to provide a consistent out-of-the-box experience for new employees (and for existing employees when issued new PCs).

Before Microsoft started using Autopilot internally, the team streamlined the imaging process as much as possible, but the company is so big (it literally offers employees hundreds of PC configurations to choose from) that speeding up how long it took an employee to get their new machine set up required that CSEO entirely rethink and redesign its approach, Aitelhadj says.

“Even though our custom imaging process was fine-tuned to its best, it was still process-intensive and wasn’t easy to manage across multiple OEMs and global regions,” she says. “To add to that, our devices needed to be connected to our corporate network to deploy our custom images.”

Now that Autopilot is handling all that work, the team can focus on fine tuning. “This is a big step up for us because we’re saving our team time and money and we’re getting critical work time back,” Aitelhadj says.

Are you interested in how Autopilot could work at your company? Windows Autopilot is available externally (click through here to learn more about it). It is available for Windows 10 users on Azure Active Directory and users of Windows Autopilot Hybrid Azure AD are able to use it to join Windows 10 devices to both Azure Active Directory and Active Directory.

[Read this case study to learn more about how Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations is using Windows Update for Business and Intune to improve how it deploys Windows internally at Microsoft.]

How deploying an image with Autopilot works

Why has installing a new Windows image traditionally been so challenging?

Companies like Microsoft have had to continuously update their custom images to make sure they are current and secure, Aitelhadj says. Every month the Windows team issues patches and updates, and those have had to be woven into each image before it could be deployed.

Before the company started using Autopilot (and in cases where it’s not yet using the new tool), handling those month-to-month updates made deploying new images very challenging.

“Our engineers have had to build and maintain our image on a monthly basis for all devices in our global ecosystem,” she says. “They have had to send each image to the OEMs. Those images include our policies, certifications, profiles—everything needed to get the devices ready for one of our employees. We’ve streamlined how we create our custom image within Microsoft, and Autopilot streamlines that even further for both IT pro and users.”

Once Autopilot is deployed across the entire company, everything will get a lot simpler.

“Say I’m a company and I have 10 users coming onboard,” Aitelhadj says. “Instead of having an IT pro load our custom image onto those PCs, the OEM will preload the devices with a universal Commercial OEM Image, they will register those machines onto Autopilot, and everything will get loaded onto those machines automatically, once the user logs in.”

Using Autopilot, the OEM loads just the operating system and Microsoft Office onto a computer—just what the employee needs to be able to turn their machine on and get started. Once online, Autopilot guides the user through a nearly hands-off out-of-box experience in which it not only handles all custom configuration settings, but also downloads and installs all needed applications. The other benefit is that the user does not have to be on the company’s corporate network or in a campus building to setup the device—they can do it from any internet connection.

And the user experience?

Thanks to Autopilot, it has gone from a struggle to an easy first log in. The trick was to then make it easy and intuitive for the employee to download and set up all the applications they need to do their work.

“We make it as simple as possible by provisioning the device with all the policies, certs, and core apps,” Aitelhadj says. “It all loads in the background within a few minutes. We limit their interaction to just the stuff they need to click through—like security and a few other required things.”

And yes, the team wanted to give the IT pros who spend hours and hours updating images each month time back, but the bigger goal was to create a simpler, more user-guided, less error-prone experience for users, thereby reducing end user frustration and the need for IT support. All this needed to be done without a time gap—for security reasons, all current updates need to be made as the new employee’s PC is booted up and handed over to them.

“We’ve saved our pilot users hundreds of hours—we’re getting them productive faster,” Aitelhadj says. “It’s pretty awesome to have that kind of impact.”

Read this case study to learn more about how Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations is using Windows Update for Business and Intune to improve how it deploys Windows internally at Microsoft.

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