Every tradesman knows that it's important to use the right tool for the right job, but when it comes to IT, it can be tempting to take the path of least resistance, particularly for small businesses who may be short on both time and resources. While deploying purpose-built business technology has a wide variety of benefits, it's often cheaper for an SMB to purchase consumer-focused devices from mainstream retailers, rather than working through a dedicated business technology partner.
In many ways, this is a perfectly legitimate choice; in most cases, the capabilities of the devices themselves will be perfectly sufficient for a small organization's needs (particularly those that aren't particularly tech focused), and the idea of potentially paying extra for advanced features that they may not use can turn some small businesses off. However, there's one glaring exception to this, and that's the operating system that sits at the year of most IT estates.
Windows makes up the default OS on the vast majority of laptops, but each version of the OS comes in a few different flavors. The two most important ones for SMBs are 'Home' - which comes preinstalled on most consumer laptops - and 'Pro'. On the surface, they look identical, but behind the scenes, it's a very different story.
Here are some of the biggest ways that switching to Windows 11 Pro can ease the burden on your IT staff and help your business grow:
1. Group policy
Every IT admin's secret weapon, group policies are among Windows' most powerful features. Essentially, they allow network administrators to define a single set of rules for all devices within a company's IT estate, governing everything from straightforward IT security measures such as blocking remote desktop access, to more creative uses like setting a custom branded wallpaper for all employee machines.
The beauty of group policies lies in their flexibility. Admins can start out with a few basic policy settings to control the fundamentals of their environment, but once they're ready to scale up, there's a vast array of granular functions that can be managed. Although they're most useful for security operations, through things like blocking USB drives or restricting access to control panel settings, they can be used to control almost every aspect of how Windows functions.
2. Automated provisioning
Setting up laptops for new employees can be a somewhat painful task; not only do you have to ensure that all the latest software updates are applied once it's out of the box, there are a number of other configuration tasks that need to be performed to customize it for your specific business environment.
For example, you'll need to install any relevant drivers to ensure it's compatible with shared devices like office printers or copiers, business applications like the Microsoft Office suite or your chosen security package must be downloaded, and your organization's group policy settings should be applied to ensure that software configuration is standardized across all machines.
These tasks are made radically easier for small businesses by using Windows 11 Pro's dynamic provisioning capabilities. Rather than making all these changes manually, or by creating a customized OS image and reinstalling it on every machine, SMB IT personnel can create a single, lightweight provisioning package file, which can be sent as an email attachment, downloaded from a shared drive, or loaded via a USB stick.
This package can then quickly and easily make all necessary changes to the OS, including applying policies, enrolling machines in Active Directory, and installing applications, saving IT staff considerable time and effort.
3. Single sign on
For organizations that use a range of Microsoft tools, Azure Active Directory is an enormous timesaver, and something that should be fundamental to their IT workflows. A cloud-based extension of the venerable Active Directory system that has been part of Windows for more than twenty years, Azure AD is a single-sign-on system which allows employees to access a range of apps and services with one login.
This includes Outlook and Exchange email systems, the entire Microsoft 365 suite, and even custom in-house applications, as well as software from a range of compatible third-party providers. This gives employees a smoother and more seamless experience, but it also makes IT management easier.
With one central console, organizations can easily control access to applications, quickly giving mass access to all employees or restricting certain programs or data to specific authorized users. It also provides an easy way to troubleshoot login problems, without having to go through the rigmarole of trying multiple different sets of credentials or resetting passwords.
The platform also offers a layered, risk-based approach to security, using multi-factor authentication and behavioral modelling to ensure that users are who they say they are. Basic Azure AD capabilities are provided free with Office 365 subscriptions, but you may need to upgrade your OS in order to take advantage, as devices running Windows 11 Home aren't able to be enrolled in the system.
4. Kiosk mode
Windows is an excellent platform for running customer-facing systems on, and a Windows-based tablet or all-in-one device makes a good front-end for something like an automated booking system. However, if you're giving customers the ability to interact with a device connected to your organization's main network, it’s generally not advisable to give them free rein.
Windows 11 Pro's dedicated 'Kiosk Mode' is a feature designed to solve this challenge. It locks off almost all of the functions of the OS, restricting users to a single predetermined application. As well as blocking everything outside of the specific app you want your customers to have access to, you can even lock down core functionality such as the start menu.
Devices in Kiosk Mode can be centrally managed via Microsoft’s fleet management tools, and can be set up and customized using provisioning packages, making them easy to deploy at scale for large events.
5. Easier updates
We’ve all had the frustrating experience of being forced to install a meaty software update right when you’re in the middle of trying to get something done, and this can have a real impact on business productivity. Windows 11 Pro allows organizations to sidestep this problem by providing more granular controls on when and how updates are rolled out across a fleet of devices.
You can schedule them for specific times when users are likely to be less busy, defer updates to a later date, or even skip them entirely - which can be particularly handy if you suspect a certain update may affect compatibility with a key peripheral or application that your small business relies on.
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Adam Shepherd is a Reviews and Community Editor for Channel Pro, Cloud Pro and IT Pro, and has previously written for PC Pro, PC Advisor and GamesRadar. He covers both business and consumer technology, but has a particular love for all things gaming, and is paying special attention to the emerging VR market.