One of the main reasons why Windows is very well established as The Enterprise Operating System is the ease of centralized administration. Most of the credit goes to Group Policies. Group Policies are a set of rules that will be enforced on the workstations and on user profiles. Based on the rules, user experience will change. That means that a CEO will get a more flexible and open system than a call center user, which will get an OS restricted to the tools he needs to be able to perform his tasks.
Group Policy is extremely powerful, and as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spiderman) – ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. The reason I am bringing that up is that is that IT departments overlook the importance of controlling access to Group Policy management. Group Policies are live, as soon as you edit a setting it is already in place. Giving control of group policy to people without the right skills can be very dangerous and can cost the company productivity and financial loss.
As a real life example, I had the opportunity to work with an Education company related to the military services. One of their IT helpdesk people, I will call him Steve, was trying to “open” the internet connection to one of the directors of the business. The Director who was on a resort for a week with his family, wanted to get some work done, and was struggling to connect to the internet. Steve who is a self-tough IT professional uses the tools he feels can address the issue quickly and helps the Director who seemed really happy over the phone. Feeling great because he was able to help a high profile person on the company, Steve goes away to his 2 days off, as planned in advance.
Next morning Steve’s boss Nick can’t access the internet and starts troubleshooting, but it seems that his proxy settings are not being correctly assign and it isn’t long until other users started calling helpdesk about not being able to access the internet. Nick talks to his team and no one knows what might have caused the issue. Steve was away. That is the point when I was called in.
Trying to gather information on symptoms, we identified that the issue was only affecting manages and directors, therefore, very likely to be a proxy setting issue. Trying to get more information I went to the proxy settings on Internet Explorer on Nick’s computer and found that the settings were blank. Nick was surprised that I could even get to the proxy settings as this was a protected menu on IE. This information was enough to find the cause of the issue. Someone, at some point, change a group policy containing a few settings. Looking at the recent changes I could identify which policy was changed the previous day, but not who did it and which settings where affected. The policy name didn’t help much as it was named “Directors and Managers”.
I focused on restoring internet connectivity by specifying the proxy settings, which took over 40 minutes for Nick to find out what is was due to the lack of documentation. I also restricted access to the connections tab on IE.
With the problem resolved and people back to work just after lunch, I had a meeting with Nick. The first question was “What happened?” The answer was easy; someone changed the group policy settings that affect the managers and director. I restored internet connectivity and secured the menu, but can’t guarantee that other settings are on the state that they should be. Than Nick asked, “What can be done to prevent that from happening again?” An my answer was; don’t give more rights to user than they really need, and more specific for this case, make sure that only people who know what they are doing have permissions to manage group policy. You can also use Microsoft Advanced Group Policy Management, part of MDOP, one of the benefits you have because you have Software Assurance on your Windows Licences.
Two days later I get a call from Nick telling me that Steve did it to help a director and he had no clue what he was doing, but then again, he was never trained by the company to do his job properly.
In short, be careful when assigning permissions for IT admin staff, helpdesk, etc. Always give them the minimum rights they need to be able to perform the tasks they are supposed to do. Many companies give “Domain Admin” rights to a lot of people just because it is easier, and that can cause a lot of issues.
Keep it classy IT pros.