By Casper Manes
No matter how good a sysadmin you are, there will always be users that will install something bad and break their computers. Here are a few tricks you can use to stop them.
You try really hard to do a good sysadmin job. You convinced your boss to purchase modern hardware. You got the entire company upgraded to a current release of Windows. You even manage to keep all your machines fully patched every month. And yet, somehow, you still find yourself reimaging machines every month, all because someone installs something that manages to fubar their machine, and the only way to get them back up and running is the old format/reinstall approach.
That takes hours to complete, leaves them (and you) unproductive until it's done, and takes away time from more important work. There's got to be a better way! Actually, there is; I have used many of them with great success at various companies, and in this post, I'll present you three ways you can keep your users from installing software that breaks their machines, while still enabling them to do their jobs.
Remove admin rights
The simplest and most effective way to keep users from doing anything that will break their machines is to not give them administrative rights; unless they are users who actually need them, of course, but that a small percentage of all users. Without admin rights, they cannot install software, change the configuration of services or drivers, or alter any registry keys. By simply not giving them the power to change stuff, you take away the risk of them breaking anything, installing malware, or installing software to which your company doesn't have sufficient licenses. It's dead simple to do, as long as you do it before you give them the machine.
Of course, this does mean that for anything they may need to do, like change a system setting or install software, they will have to come to you instead, and that alone may bring more work than you are willing or able to deal with. You may also have some line-of-business software that requires a user to have admin rights; as ridiculous as that sounds, there's tons of software out there that does, and there's unfortunately little you can do about it. The removal of admin rights may also cause some hard feelings at your users, if they are already accustomed to being able to install whatever they want on their machines.
In short, the easiest solution may be the hardest to implement. But for small shops, or those that need Windows, but are either not Windows-centric or have a widely distributed workforce, this may be the way to go. Remember that Remote Assistance is a useful way to enable your support team to help users who are on the road, even with software installs. Here's a tip though – don't use the same admin password on every machine, it's guaranteed to get out eventually.
Make apps available from a centralized location
Published applications in Active Directory are a good way to provide users with a catalog of additional applications they can install if they need them, while not giving administrative rights. Any app that comes with an MSI file, or that you can package, can be published on the network this way, and you can push the install to machines using GPO. Since installing these MSI/MST/MSP files invokes the Installer service, your users don't need admin rights. But remember to make available only the ones you are willing to support.
You can use groups and permissions to make certain apps available to all, and others only available to some. Even better, apps deployed this way can be removed in the same way, so if you decide to stop supporting an application or you don't renew licensing for it, you can remove it from machines (see https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/816102 for more on this). Again though, publishing applications does require Active Directory, and a connection to it, so this may not to be a good fit for small shops, or for users who are remote full time and have limited bandwidth. Even with VPN, installing software over a slow link is painful at best, and may fail.
Lock your applications
First introduced with Windows 7, and greatly improved in Windows 10, AppLocker enables admins to either allow or block users from installing or using specific applications. You typically use Active Directory group memberships to control permission assignments to users who can or cannot install applications, and combine that with a whitelist of applications that privileged users can install. You can go the other way, but it's far easier to assign permissions rather than take them away, and a whitelist of allowed applications is less work than creating a blacklist of the legion of apps you don't want users to install.
On the pro side, you can create a group of users that should (or at least need) to install software on their machines that is not a part of your "standard image" and ensure that, even for users who have local admin rights, software not on that list cannot be installed. It takes a bit of work up front, and you will probably need to add new programs to that list on a regular basis, but it lets you restrict what software can be installed, while still letting users have local admin rights.
It also requires an Active Directory environment and workstations to have a connection to it, which may be challenging for the mobile workforce, that is probably your neediest bunch, and in smaller companies. But if you do have AD and your mobile users have VPN, it's a great way to go. Take a look at https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd723686(v=ws.10).aspx for some dated but still good guidance on how to set up AppLocker if that's something you would like to use.
Don't forget the management
No, not your company's leadership – it's the application and patch management I'm referring to, that any of the above solutions will certainly require. Windows Update can be great for operating systems and Office products, but as soon as you have any third-party software on your systems, you are going to need to be able to patch that software, and ensure that you company remains compliant with licensing. Freeware and open-source software is not always free for commercial use, and even when it is, if your users don't keep up with the updates, that software can present serious risk to your company.
There are several solutions out there, and GFI LanGuard is one of those who can help you in this. In addition to its vulnerability scanning, GFI LanGuard can patch many of the most popular third-party applications, including the ones that seem to have security updates every other week (see the full list of supported apps here). Using GFI LanGuard, you can ensure that those apps you publish through AD or permit through AppLocker can be updated, so your users and your data stays secure. And with its software audit capabilities, you can easily create and maintain a running inventory of all the software installed on your systems, so you can ensure you have enough licenses to cover what your users have installed. Whether you decide to take away admin rights, or provide alternatives that can be a good compromise between lock down and anarchy, it's important to make sure you keep your systems patched and your compliance in line.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.