UW Information Technology

May 3, 2021

When a pandemic hits, configuring work computers goes on autopilot

In the past year, UW Information Technology has pushed the boundaries of tech to ensure UW staff, among others, get their hands on the tools they need while the pandemic keeps nearly everyone away from campus. Autopilot is but one example.

By Gretchen Konrady

Since launching just ahead of fall quarter last year, UW-IT’s automated computer configuration and setup service — Autopilot at the UW — has provided for smooth delivery of hundreds of network domain-ready PCs to UW staff working remotely.

It took nimble teamwork and Microsoft infrastructure expertise to quickly implement Autopilot and other Microsoft cloud-based solutions to be “contactless,” given the pandemic — and the success at the UW led to project team members being invited to share their experiences at a recent Microsoft customer event.

Microsoft has long offered cloud-based services supporting open-the-box-and-connect readiness for off-site workforces who use Windows devices. IT professionals specify needed configurations for software and network connectivity, settings for security and end-user roles, and more, and it’s all a hands-off configuration of devices via the cloud.

“We knew Autopilot could do a lot of great things, and we knew we’d be interested, someday,” said Windows Engineer Kim Frye. “We were thankful the University wanted people to be at home and safe right away, as not every employer was doing that. With no one going into the office to touch the machines, and with the health and safety of our team at the top of our priorities, we knew just what we had to do.”

The Managed Workstation team continued their own work remotely of course. They made the switch from their on-premises Microsoft configuration processes and tools to Microsoft’s cloud-based services, getting deep into the technical aspects of Microsoft Autopilot, Intune and Azure Active Directory Hybrid Join. Their expertise was vital to ensuring the UW’s large, diverse workforce could easily get new and replacement PCs pre-configured to join the UW network domain, with all data security measures in place.

“Everyone on campus had to be considered. So coming up with a core configuration had to be very generic,” Kim said.

In addition to the ability to connect and authenticate to the UW network with a UW NetID, the core configuration covers PCs being provided by UW-IT as individual or group-based Managed Workstation machines, and to departmental IT teams needing additional software and usage settings. PCs are configured with Windows 10 Enterprise enabled to run critical updates; antivirus and malware tools; Microsoft Office apps; encryption software for device security; and Husky OnNet VPN (virtual private network).

Computers can be ordered from CDW-G or Dell through the University’s Ariba purchasing system, and at the same time, purchasers can opt for these computers to be enrolled in Autopilot for the UW so they go to users pre-enrolled.

“Autopilot has been an incredible service,” Kim said. “The culture in UW-IT enabled us to be nimble, and do what needs to be done during the pandemic. Autopilot is the result of that innovative mindset.”