Parallels Mac Management – What’s been happening?

Yet another post about the Parallels Mac Management plugin for Configuration Manager. Anyone would think they pay to write this crap! Well, unfortunately for me, they don’t. I have to admit, this post has been an embarrassingly long time in the making; in between work, parenting and being absolutely cream crackered all the time, I just haven’t had time to work on this.

Despite having not used ConfigMgr or the PMM in almost two years, I’m still very enthusiastic about both subjects. They combine my favourite kind of computer with my favourite professional application and by God, I’ve just realised what a complete spod I am. Oh well. Anyway, I was very curious about the progress Parallels have made with their product. The first release of the PMM was almost unrecognisable (in a good way) compared to the version that I last used at my old college (v3.5) and I knew that Parallels were working on some pretty cool stuff for version 4. In the end, my curiosity got the better of me so I reached out to one of my contacts at Parallels and asked if I could take a look at the latest version. He said “Yes” and the seeds for this article were sown; I downloaded the latest version of the product (v5 at the time) and started writing this article.

Quite a lot of time later, the Multi Academy Trust (MAT) of schools that I work for decided that they were going change the management system that it uses for its computers. The schools all run RM Community Connect 4 and I would say that it’s likely that the vast majority of those who have ever worked in a school and have had the misfortune of working with a version of RM Community Connect will most likely understand why. One day, I may write an article about what we’ve done and I’m sure a lot of people will call us insane for doing so but never mind. We chose System Center Configuration Manager to replace the computer management aspect of CC4 because it’s part of our Microsoft OVS-ES license and because of my experience of installing and using it.

As well as using Configuration Manager to manage our Windows machines, we also needed something to manage our Macs. There are about 200 of them dotted around the organisation and at the moment, they’re just about completely unmanaged. Yes, there are some which are connected to one of three instances of Profile Manager and there are a couple of Munki instances in-place but it’s (ugh) organic, unplanned and barely functional. The Macs are taking up a disproportionate amount of our IT Support team’s time compared to the Windows machines and we needed something to manage them properly. There seem to be a relative lack of decent management tools out there for Macs but in the end, we looked at JAMF (formerly Casper and probably the market leader for Mac management), the PMM and KACE, formally Dell but now spun out of Dell as part of Quest Software. KACE was the cheapest, the PMM was in the middle and JAMF was the most expensive. I got trials for all three but the PMM won the business because it integrates into ConfigMgr seamlessly which in turn means that we will be properly manage our entire environment through a single pane of glass. Admittedly, my experience with the product also helped but I will say that the other two are top notch products and under different circumstances, I would be happy to use either of them. However, using the PMM along with InTune and Configuration Manager means that everything that we need to manage is managed using one console which hopefully will keep things relatively simple for our IT teams. Time will tell.

So what’s new? We are now on v6.1 of the PMM so there are a fair few new features to look at.

V4’s headline feature was task sequencing for OSD. Instead of having to follow that pain in the arse procedure I developed for OSD, there is a better one built-in to the PMM now. You no longer need to create operating system images using Apple’s tools and put in a myriad of scripts to automate the rest of the process. Parallels have put in a proper task sequence wizard similar to the one built into ConfigMgr for Windows machines. They’ve also given you the tools you require to build and capture a master Mac image. You no longer need a copy of OS X Server to capture your image or to create a workflow.

V4.5’s new feature was update management and deployment. While you could always deploy updates to Macs using by downloading the update and deploying it with a Package, it wasn’t an especially elegant way of going about it. There was a lot of manual processing involved and personally I found it fairly awkward to deploy large OS X updates using this method. Well, it’s no longer required. Parallels have done something I never would have thought to do in a million years: they’ve leveraged WSUS to deploy updates to Macs. I’ll just wait for a moment to let you recover from that one.

V5 introduced support for Apple’s Device Enrolment Protocol so that new Macs can be automatically enrolled into your environment. They also put in a license manager for the PMM in this release too.

In V6, they started to support Software Metering, they’ve put in the ability to lock and wipe a Mac remotely, they’ve started using Maintenance Windows and they added a few options to OSD task sequences, the main one being the ability to deploy ConfigMgr Applications during a task sequence as well as Packages.

Finally, V6.1 added support for macOS High Sierra. This has always been a strength of the PMM; High Sierra was released on the 25th September 2017 and Parallels put in official support for the OS on October 10th. The version of KACE that I was evaluating (v8.0) wouldn’t deploy High Sierra to a Mac and Microsoft’s native Configuration Manager client didn’t get support for it until the end of November 2017. Parallels have always been very fast to officially support new version of macOS and, generally speaking, I’ve found that the PMM has worked even when unofficial support hasn’t been there.

Operating System Deployment

When I last used it, Operating System Deployment in the PMM was something of a weak point. It was technically very impressive that they managed to get it into V3 and it was much better than nothing but if you wanted a fully automated workflow, you couldn’t do it without a lot of hacking about. Essentially, you had to create a Netboot image (NBI) with third-party tools then upload that NBI to ConfigMgr. You then published that image to a collection and any Mac in that collection was able to boot from it and do a deployment. If you wanted to deploy more than one image, you had to repeat the process again. For each image, there was a separate Netboot image published and an extra entry for the Mac to boot from. There’s a fairly long article about it on this site that got linked by Parallels. It’s here if you want to read it.

The situation is a lot better now. Instead of having to mess about as described in the linked article, Parallels have implemented proper task sequencing for your Macs. It is very much like the task sequence wizard that Windows machines use. To use it, you need to create a boot image for your Macs to boot from then an operating system image for them to download and deploy.

To create a boot image, you need to download a DMG file from the server that your PMM is running on. Inside that DMG file is a command line utility that generates your boot image. The utility uses the version of macOS that’s installed on the Mac it’s run from to create an NBI file. The NBI contains a cut down image of macOS and a single app which contacts the PMM and requests and runs task sequences. Once the NBI file is generated, you need to copy it to the server hosting the PMM and add it to the Configuration Manager console using a wizard. This is good; instead of having multiple NBIs published to your Macs, you can have just one. The app in the NBI contacts the PMM and decides whether it has a task sequence it needs to run.

You can then start creating task sequences. Again, like Windows, task sequences created by the PMM can either capture or deploy an operating system image. I expect that the first task sequence that you will create is one to capture an operating system.

Capture a macOS Image

To do so, you open the Configuration Manager console, you go to the Software Library workspace, Operating Systems then Task Sequences. Right click on Task Sequences and select “Create OS X Task Sequence”

This brings up a window which asks you to give the task sequence a name:

The “Steps” tab is well named, it contains all of the steps of the task sequence:

In this case, we are only going to have one step in the sequence, we’re going to capture an image. Unlike Windows, macOS doesn’t require any kind of pre-preperation such as Sysprep before an image is created.

The options here are pretty simple; it wants to know where it should save the captured image to and it wants to know the credentials that it can use to connect to the server. Don’t do what I did here in my development environment and use the domain admin account, that would be bad. Use a proper network access account instead.

Once the form is filled out, press the OK button and the sequence will be saved. You can then deploy the task sequence to a collection just like you do with a Windows one.

Deploy a macOS Image

The other side of this coin is to deploy an image to a Mac. You use the same wizard to create a Deployment task sequence as well so lets look at that screenshot with the possible steps again:

As you can see, there are nowhere near as many possible steps here as there are for Windows machines but that said, there are probably enough cover most people. You don’t need to install drivers on a Mac as they’re already all included in the OS image. There isn’t an equivalent of the USMT for macOS that I’m aware of so there are no options for that. Really, the only thing that I’d say is missing is the ability to deploy any updates that are available. Lets look at an example task sequence:

The sequence that I’m showing is as basic as you can get but it works. It partitions the disk (Only HFS+ is supported at the moment, I don’t know how Parallels are going to handle APFS. I’ll ask the question when this article is published and update it later on), downloads and applies the OS, sets the Mac’s hostname, joins it to a domain and installs a mobileconfig file. You can also install software during the task sequence; when I first looked at this in the V4 beta, you could only install software using legacy packages. I found this disappointing and told Parallels so. However, since V6 you can now use modern style Applications as well. The only slight snag with deploying Applications with a task sequence is the detection routine that Parallels uses to detect whether an installation was successful or not. It frequently does not update itself quickly enough before it moves onto the next Application to install so therefore, more often than not, it thinks that the installation of the software hasn’t been successful. Parallels therefore recommend that you check the “Continue on Error” option when deploying applications otherwise the task sequence will fail. The downside to this is that if the deployment of an Application actually does fail, it’s not going to be immediately obvious that it has and you may find it a little harder to troubleshoot if it does. Parallels acknowledge that this is a problem in their documentation but I suspect that it’s probably not something that’s going to be solved without rearchitecting their solution.

Once again, you the task sequence is finished, you press the OK button to save it and you can deploy it to a collection in the usual manner. There is now an “Unknown Macs” collection created inside Configuration Manager when the PMM is installed; this means that a Mac doesn’t have to be known to Configuration Manager before it can run a task sequence.

The PMM’s Task Sequence engine also supports task sequence variables. This means that settings such as the Host Name can be automatically assigned and if you wish, you can assign blank variables to a collection as well. If the wizard detects a blank variable, it will let you fill it in.

 

macOS Operating System Updates

V4.5 of the PMM brought the ability to manage updates. The way that they’ve achieved this is quite interesting. They have leveraged the Local Updates Publishing facility of WSUS to catalog updates from Apple. Because the updates from Apple are cataloged in WSUS, they are entered into the Configuration Manager console in the Updates section.

Because the updates are now in the console, you can create Software Update Groups and deploy them to the collections that your Macs are members of. However, the software update point just catalogues the updates; it doesn’t send them to distribution points and your Macs don’t download and install them from your Configuration Manager servers. Instead, the Parallels Update Point tells the Mac which update it wants the Mac to download then the Mac downloads them either directly from Apple’s servers (which is the default option) or from a local Mac update server.

The process to set this up is very involved and because of this, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to evaluate how well the process works. It’s on my to-do list and I will update this article when I get the opportunity to try it. If you want a more detailed overview of how this works, the Parallels documentation is very thorough and clear. You can find it here: Parallels Administrator Guide from page 153 to 166.

Device Enrolment Protocol (DEP)

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this. In theory, I expect that this would be very useful as it gives you the ability to automatically enrol any new Mac that you buy into your Configuration Manager instance. However, all of the Macs that we own are relatively old and none have been bought using the DEP program so I can’t evaluate how well this facility works. I wish I could say more but I can’t.

License Manager

This one is for Parallel’s benefit more than anything else but I understand why they’ve implemented it. The PMM has always been licensed per Mac and it’s always been a timed license. However, older versions of the PMM had no way of tracking usage or expiry dates. You could buy a license for X amount of Macs and use it for as many as you wanted with no recourse. I imagine that a lot of people did as well so Parallels have put in this facility to limit you to managing the amount of Macs that you’ve bought licenses for.

There isn’t much to say about it really. It keeps track of the amount of Macs that are enrolled in Configuration Manager and I would imagine that it does a good job of stopping the PMM from working once your licenses expire. As I say, I understand why they’ve done this. Anyway, this is probably the most important part of the license manager that shows in the console:

Seamless…

Software Metering

It works. There isn’t much more to say about it. It works in exactly the same way as it does for Windows machines, you configure it in the same way and you use the same reports as you do for Windows software to view the data. This is a good thing.

Remote Lock and Wipe

This does what it says on the tin, it allows you to remotely lock and wipe a Mac which is lost or stolen. This works by enrolling your Mac into an MDM which is part of the PMM. This is achieved either through DEP or with a separate MDM component inside the PMM.

Again, I haven’t had the opportunity to try this facility but considering that a huge amount of the laptops that we have are MacBooks which are used by a lot of the senior people in our organisation and that GDPR is going to be a thing, this is something I’m going to take a closer look at very soon. According to the documentation, you can tell the PMM to automatically enrol any Mac in a particular collection into its MDM. Once you’ve done that, you can send a remote wipe or lock command to the Mac as soon as it connects itself to the Internet. Once I’ve implemented this, I’ll post an update to this article.

Maintenance Windows

As with Software Metering, this just works. You can now use the same method of assigning maintenance windows to your Macs as you do for your Windows machines and your Macs will respect them. Again, a good thing.

Room for improvement?

It’s safe to say that the PMM, already a very good product, has improved considerably in the last two years. They’ve added new features and added support for more and more features that were Windows only before. The product still seems to be stable and it works well. I’m pleased with what I’ve seen and have been happy to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money on the PMM once again. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that there is room for improvement in some regards.

Multi-site scenarios

My MAT has three school clusters. Two of the school clusters have three geographical sites, the other one has two. All of these sites are connected by WAN links, either leased lines or point-to-point wireless connections. The point is, although a computer can access any other computer or server at any location in our organisation, it might not have the fastest or lowest latency link to that other computer. Therefore, all of the separate sites that are in the organisation have at least some local resources to use such as a domain controller, a file server and Configuration Manager infrastructure.

My original plan when implementing Configuration Manager was to have a single primary site covering all of our organisation. I would have at least one Management Point and Distribution Point per geographical site and clients would choose which MP and DP to use with its boundary group. This made sense as I’m not managing anything like 150,000 clients so a CAS and multiple primary sites were deemed unnecessary. The hope was that I would be able to install an instance of the PMM at each of the secondary schools and have those PMMs integrate into the site.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. Each Configuration Manager site can only support a single instance of the PMM. It doesn’t matter if you have multiple management points in your site; if you try to install more than one PMM in a single SCCM primary site, the PMM configuration program detects that there is already a PMM in that site and refuses to configure the PMM. So this left me with three choices:

  1. Have a single PMM across the entire organisation and have at least two thirds of our Macs download their policies over a WAN connection
  2. Have a single primary site in one school cluster and deploy secondary sites to the other school clusters
  3. Deploy a Central Administration Site (CAS) and a primary site in each of the school clusters.

The IT teams discussed this and we came to the following conclusions:

  1. We didn’t want management traffic of any kind going over the WAN links. They have limited bandwidth, relatively high latencies and if one of them stopped working for some reason, the Mac management would stop working for at least some of the Macs. We decided that this was unacceptable
  2. Secondary sites are designed for very slow WAN connections and they don’t support all of the available roles for Configuration Manager. While our WAN connections are relatively slow, they’re not that slow and we wanted to be able to install all possible roles locally.
  3. To allow us to have a PMM per cluster and for the reasons above, we decided to have a CAS and a primary site per school cluster. This generated quite a lot of debate but this configuration won out eventually. It does mean that we have a lot more servers set aside for Configuration Manager than we originally intended to have but everything is in place now.

It would be nice, however, if all of this wasn’t necessary and if Parallels would allow you to have multiple PMMs per primary site. Configuration Manager has no issue with multiple management points per site so it can’t be that hard.

Mac App Store

Love it or loathe it, the App Store is here and it isn’t going anywhere. I can’t buy Final Cut Pro, Logic, Pages, Numbers, Keynote or any other application that’s only available through the App Store by any other means. The PMM has an MDM built into it for Remote Lock and Wipe. I’d like to leverage it to deploy App Store apps to my Macs. I don’t want to use Profile Manager to do this because Profile Manager sucks and macOS server is being severely deprecated in its next release. I also don’t want to use InTune or another MDM because I don’t want my Macs to be managed in two places. Pretty please Parallels?

Operating System Deployment

So, OSD has been much improved with some nice wizards but there are a couple of areas where it still falls a bit short. The first thing that I’d like to see improved is the “Execute Script” action inside the task sequence wizard. Let me illustrate what I mean:

Don’t get me wrong, it’s adequate but personally I don’t like the fact that it’s just a box to copy and paste a script into. I would much rather that it mirrored what Microsoft does and have the script in a package which the task sequence then downloads from a DP and executes. You might think that I’m being rather petty saying this but consider this: You might have 10/15/20 task sequences and you might want them all to execute the same script. If you needed to change that script, you have to go through each task sequence and edit each one in turn. You don’t have to do that with a Windows task sequence, all you do is edit the script stored in your definitive software library and update your distribution point. I think it’s obvious which method scales better. The same gripe applies to the “Apply Configuration Profile” step as well, the mobileconfig file is imported into the task sequence and stored in there instead of being retrieved from a package.

The second issue that I have with this is that this operation system deployment system still requires more action from a technician than I would like. To build or rebuild a Mac, a tech needs to visit the Mac, set it to boot from the network by holding down the option key or by using the Startup Disk preference pane, waiting for the NBI to boot, authenticating, selecting a task sequence then setting it going. When you have an entire room of Macs to rebuild, this is time consuming. It would be so much better if task sequences appeared in the Parallels Application Portal as well as to boot media and it would be even better if you could schedule when the task sequence ran, just like what happens with Windows and Software Center. This way a tech could set up a job in the Configuration Manager console and leave it at that. Even if you couldn’t schedule it, having a single-click action inside the Parallels Application Portal which automatically selected your task sequence and authenticated you against the PMM would also be a vast improvement. Maybe in V7?

The last thing I’d like to see is a method of creating a bootable preinstallation media. It’s not always possible to netboot so the ability to boot into the preinstallation environment with a USB stick could be useful.

The End. For Now.

This article has been coming for a downright embarrassing amount of time for which I can only apologise. I’ve wanted to get this completed for a very long time and I’ve only just recently found the time to do so. I hope it’s been informative and useful for you. When Parallels updates the PMM with some new functionality, assuming the functionality merits it, I will post a new article talking about it. However, I don’t want this blog to be a Parallels mouthpiece so I am going to try to post more frequently about other things but they’re probably going to be computer related. Hey, I’m a geek, this is what interests me.

I don’t consider any of the shortcomings above to be show-stoppers. The PMM is a very capable product that’s come a very, very long way in the last four years, I have no hesitation in recommending it for use. I invite Parallels to contact me about this article and inform me of any inaccuracies or mistakes that I’ve made. I’m happy to post corrections to the article if need be. With their permission, I will also publish any comments that they have to make about it as well.

If you’ve read this and have any questions that you’d like to ask, please post a comment in the section below and I will do my best to answer.

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