How higher education can minimise PC refresh headaches for remote workers

The challenge of managing PC migrations and how institutions have dealt with this during the pandemic

Even as students and faculty are gradually starting to return to campuses, colleges and universities must now grapple with the challenge of sustaining hybrid remote work and learning environments. Institutions face a host of administrative and technical challenges ranging from compliance reporting to concerns about maintaining productivity while balancing short and longer-term needs. As a result, we are looking at a fundamental shift in the way education institutions operate both in the classroom and the back office.

A particular challenge for many campus IT departments is finding ways to efficiently manage complex remote and hybrid workplaces in order for employees to remain productive. For IT teams responsible for providing the PCs and applications that faculty and staff need to do their jobs, the likely long-term shift to remote working on a large scale presents some unique challenges.

In this more complex environment, IT departments will have significantly more workspaces to set up, more or less equally divided between remote and office locations. As PCs and laptops reach the end of their lives and require replacement, technical support teams must figure out ways to efficiently and securely transfer data between PCs without the ability to physically gain access to both devices. Even for a smaller institution such as Colby College in Maine with 1,800 students, the IT services team needs to transfer data across more than 150 PCs annually on average.

Avoid lost productivity

Compounding the problem is the fact that many application and data migrations are performed manually, a very time-intensive process. And complex migrations from one device to the next involve much more than just copying files to cloud storage or external hard drives and dragging them over to a new machine. In the case of most faculty members, there are many specialised applications and PC settings that need attention. Often, the IT support staff may need to gain access to their system, change and update passwords, and resolve any issues that may have arisen. The cost is more than just the hours invested by the IT staff – there’s also the question of lost productivity among faculty and staff.

For many larger institutions, a commonly used tool for setting up remote workers and handling hardware replacements from lease rotations has been Microsoft’s User State Migration Tool (USMT). However, it depends heavily on custom XML scripts that must be developed and maintained and falls well short in certain functionality that is critical for remote migration scenarios. As one global professional and financial services firm discovered, USMT fails to deliver the quick and easy experience needed to support thousands upon thousands of migrations. In this case, the firm developed an internal tool customised to fit its processes based on USMT. While this tool allowed users to complete migrations, the process itself was long and tedious, taking at least 20 minutes of set-up before the process could even begin. They found the end result also lacked the accuracy needed, having missed important elements of the PC that needed to be transferred, and they eventually abandoned USMT altogether.

“USMT falls short in part because the list of what it does not migrate is nearly as long as what it does. A particular stumbling point is a lack of support for migrating applications, even though it sometimes migrates application settings for certain apps”

USMT falls short in part because the list of what it does not migrate is nearly as long as what it does. A particular stumbling point is a lack of support for migrating applications, even though it sometimes migrates application settings for certain apps. A variety of settings such as printers, hardware settings, and permissions also aren’t supported. It also lacks support for migration between different language versions of Windows. Overall, the USMT process is cumbersome and does not handle remote migration scenarios.

Zero-touch migrations

A new approach to managing PC migrations is needed in the remote work era. Remote employees need simple migration steps and the process should be as automated as possible – even to the point of zero touch. In this scenario, an employee kicks off a migration to a new or replacement PC with a few simple clicks and the rest of the process is automated with minimal oversight by an also remote IT department. A simple and streamlined process like this reduces the need for employees to call into a help desk or submit a support ticket. To move in this direction, IT requires more automation and control over the migration process than what other tools provide and excluding labour-intensive scripting and testing.

“Remote employees need simple migration steps and the process should be as automated as possible – even to the point of zero touch”

Here are three recommendations for support teams at colleges and universities to consider when deploying automated solutions for remote PC/OS migrations.

  1. Look for an automated tool that can move everything: applications, data and settings, including user accounts, application environments, application add-ons, background pictures, favourites, and more.
  2. Each PC and user is different and requires different migration procedures. To accommodate these variations, IT departments must have enough flexibility in their PC migration tool to support a wide range of unique use cases.
  3. Implement a policy-based tool that allows IT administrators to pre-check a variety of choices within the program to create a predefined experience that can be executed by an end-user or an IT administrator with minimal interaction. The ‘experienced’ user might require a full range of options, but most users are better off with a no-touch or light-touch migration to drive down human error. A policy-based approach reduces complexity compared to developing intricate custom XML scripts, while providing the necessary flexibility.

It seems likely that remote work is not only here to stay across the education landscape but will likely introduce the concept of much more complex hybrid workspaces, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is finally in the rear-view mirror. To successfully support this model, institutions must find ways and tools, to automate and streamline processes while minimising hands-on IT involvement in setting up and migrating PCs.


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