Does Microsoft Intune or Windows Autopilot do imaging? (And does it matter?)

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Joanne Yip|April 18, 2022
General blog image 2
General blog image 2

When it comes to rolling out and setting up new PCs across any organization, there are a few distinct approaches that IT teams can take.

1. Windows imaging

Imaging is one common way to prepare new Windows devices for use. While imaging can be done manually, the more efficient option is to use a computer imaging solution to wipe a device clean and deploy a custom, corporate Windows image that includes Windows OS, common configurations, and line-of-business applications that are required across the organization. This also includes model-specific device drivers and user- or role-specific applications and settings. IT technicians armed with a fast and reliable imaging solution will find that it also comes in handy in other situations like PC break-fix scenarios (more on that later), hardware replacement, and disaster recovery.

2. Automated, policy-based configuration

Another approach is to forego imaging altogether and simply set up a new device using a program like Windows Autopilot, based on predetermined policy settings. Windows Autopilot is used for configuring new PCs that already have an OEM Windows OS preloaded, automating the setup of predetermined settings, configurations, and software on each device. As an option, Microsoft Intune — a cloud-based mobile device management or MDM service — can be used to manage user devices and their applications. Neither Windows Autopilot nor Microsoft Intune is designed to deploy Windows OS images. They merely perform a standard series of configurations onto a preexisting image.

In a typical scenario, new PCs are purchased and preloaded with a commercial OEM Windows OS, registered in Windows Autopilot, and run through an automated setup process when the user first logs in. This can be done via the internet and devices don’t have to be onsite or on the corporate network. As an option, devices can be enrolled and managed in Microsoft Intune, or co-managed together with SCCM (now known as Microsoft Configuration Manager). Both are part of the Microsoft Intune product family (previously named Microsoft Endpoint Manager).

3. Manual installation and configuration

A third approach is to set up devices manually, without the use of imaging software or configuration tools — an extremely slow, time-consuming, and painstaking process. This starts with manually installing a fresh version of Windows — usually a fully attended process. If you’re installing an earlier version of Windows, you would also have to install all the Windows updates that have been published since, which could take two to three hours and several restarts.

Next, you’ll have to manually search for, download, and install the right device drivers into each machine being deployed. This is a tedious process, made worse if you’re supporting different makes and models of hardware. Applications will also have to be installed one by one, followed by setting up local user accounts, connecting to the domain, mapping network and printer drivers, and other configuration tasks. From start to finish, the whole process takes approximately five to six hours per endpoint.

So, why is Windows imaging still important?

With Windows Autopilot to create a customized OOBE and Microsoft Intune to manage devices on an ongoing basis, is this software combo on Microsoft Endpoint Manager going to be an all-in-one fit for every organization?

The short answer is no.

In addition to some uncommon prerequisites, the general understanding in IT (and on Reddit) is that Windows Autopilot is not a replacement for imaging. And now that modern imaging solutions, like SmartDeploy, can image computers from the cloud, the manual touchpoint can be eliminated altogether to better support a remote workforce.

In truth, imaging devices is still important for many sysadmins, for several good reasons.

It is a foolproof, repeatable process

Imaging PCs ensures that every machine — whether it’s a new or an existing device — starts from the same baseline and eliminates productivity interruptions caused by human error. With a reliable imaging solution, this task can even be completed by an entry-level technician without extensive training, freeing senior technicians to focus on more strategic projects.

Each Windows device starts from a known, clean state

OEM hardware comes preloaded with unwanted bloatware that isn’t suitable in a corporate environment. And even with uninstallers, there may be traces of the software left behind. Creating a clean, up-to-date reference machine and deploying the golden image to every device offers better quality control and no unknown variables, reducing the likelihood of unexpected downtime and noncompliance, enabling timely IT troubleshooting.

It ensures OS compatibility and minimizes disruption following any Windows update

With a reliable computer imaging solution, images can be more easily maintained and are more likely to be updated with the latest patches and updates. An existing device with an out-of-date OS risks running into compatibility issues following certain Windows updates, which can affect productivity. The first major Windows 10 update was a case in point, resulting in widespread disruption, hours of user downtime, and untold levels of frustration.

With OEM media, you’re always working with the Windows version in the original image, which will not be updated. At best, the user will have to install many Windows updates upon the first login. At worst, the OS may simply remain out-of-date and vulnerable to bugs and security exploits, which should already have been patched. By reimaging with an always up-to-date corporate image, you can eliminate these issues and ensure that your users are given the best possible start.

Troubleshooting OS or virus damage

From Windows system file corruption to a high-impact cybersecurity event, IT can minimize business impact and get users back to full productivity quickly by reimaging devices with a clean and updated Windows image. Utah-based cyber security services firm, Heroic, shares how they imaged over 400 devices in one weekend to ensure uninterrupted patient care for their healthcare client.

Busting the buts

But isn’t imaging a time-consuming and tedious process?

That’s only true if you’re talking about using traditional sector-based imaging (sometimes referred to as cloning). Cloning requires you to maintain a physical reference computer which may be cumbersome to keep up to date and rebuild as needed. You may also need to maintain separate reference computers for each hardware model, which multiplies the amount of IT effort involved. But cloning isn’t the only way to image Windows devices, and it certainly isn’t the most efficient.

A modern imaging solution like SmartDeploy offers a faster and more reliable option. Besides a relatively short setup and ramp-up time, SmartDeploy leverages a virtual reference machine and patented device driver injection technology to enable single-image management. All the hardware-specific device driver information is handled automatically, making it easy to manage unlimited hardware makes or models without additional time or effort. Unlike traditional imaging solutions, you won’t need to spend hours creating and managing an extensive library of model-specific images even if you’re supporting a hardware-diverse environment.

But why should I use imaging software when I get Windows Autopilot and Microsoft Intune for free with my Microsoft subscription?

The upfront cost is often the primary or only consideration within organizations, overriding crucial tradeoffs that could have a bigger impact on day-to-day operations. It’s important to remember that unless your IT team is made up of volunteers, there are real costs associated with their time. A free license to Windows Autopilot and Microsoft Intune does not mean that a solution won’t cost you in other ways.

For example, Menasha Joint School District in Wisconsin received Microsoft SCCM free in their Microsoft licensing agreement and soon found themselves spending hours and precious resources to learn, configure and manage the software in order to meet their needs. Beyond just pricing, “free” subscriptions have to be more critically assessed against your business needs, resources, and the complexity of user requirements.

But isn’t Windows Autopilot a better option for a remote workforce?

Windows Autopilot is certainly an option when setting up and deploying a new device remotely but it’s not the only approach to take. As a modern computer imaging tool, SmartDeploy is designed to enable seamless cloud deployment to end users — wired or wireless, without requiring a corporate network connection. With SmartDeploy, you can store and deploy your Windows image, software, scripts, and drivers using Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.

While remote work continues to be widespread, more people are also returning to the office or splitting their time between both options in a hybrid work environment. A multifaceted solution, SmartDeploy provides IT with the versatility to image and set up a Windows PC in whatever way works best — via USB or optical media, over the local network, or over the internet.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that Windows Autopilot and Microsoft Intune are not imaging tools. They do not replace the need for imaging for the reasons mentioned earlier, and then some. Windows imaging is a much cleaner approach towards hardware rollouts and PC lifecycle management, takes less time than you might think, and goes a long way in setting up time-strapped IT teams for success.

Check out our guided demo to see how SmartDeploy can help you to reimage a Windows PC in minutes. Or try it out for yourself with a free trial.

joanne profile
Joanne Yip

Joanne has always loved the impact that words can make. When she isn’t typing away in the world of sysadmin, Joanne loves hiking with her husband and dog, true-crime podcasts, and dreaming of her next scuba diving adventure.

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