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Windows 8.1 Users: Beware of SkyDrive's Auto Sync

Microsoft's decision to have SkyDrive's auto sync functions enabled as default and the lack of sync customization could lead to major headaches for IT.

Considering the early hiccups in user acceptance of the new interface in Windows 8, it isn't surprising how few organizations have actually rolled out the new OS. Even with the recent improvements made to Windows 8.1, it's not unreasonable to expect an abundance of caution by enterprise IT decision makers.

That caution is warranted, particularly as enterprises begin to fully appreciate the scope of Windows 8.1's "cloudifi­cation." Windows 8.1 is advertised, among other things, as including "deep cloud integration with SkyDrive."

"Deep" in this case refers not only to SkyDrive's now-native cloud sync for documents. It also covers the service's synchronization of desktop settings among configured computers. Curiously, you can't uninstall these functions from Windows 8.1. They're both now enabled by default, which I find quite concerning. This is a noteworthy change from the SkyDrive client's separate download and installation in Windows 8.

I was reminded of SkyDrive's new "default on" behavior not long after installing my second Windows 8.1 machine in production. I'd set the taskbar on my laptop computer to auto-hide. Shortly afterward, I noticed the same behavior on my newly-installed desktop, as well.

That behavior appeared after I connected my Active Directory account to my Microsoft account on both computers. I had to do that under Change PC Settings. Creating that linkage on both -- and leaving all the other associated settings at their defaults -- began automatically synchronizing each machine's settings to the other.

Realizing what had happened, I looked to Group Policy to shut down the functionality. Doing so required first copying the SkyDrive.admx and SkyDrive.adml templates from C:\Windows\PolicyDefinitions on a Windows 8.1 computer to my SYSVOL's Group Policy Central Store. Once copied, I enabled the policy titled Prevent the usage of SkyDrive for file storage, which is in Computer Configuration | Windows Components | SkyDrive.

There are two additional Group Policy settings available to control SkyDrive's out-of-box behaviors. The first instructs the SkyDrive client to Save documents and pictures to the local PC by default. Enabling this policy lets IT keep the SkyDrive connection operational, but as an option for users to store data. The second policy prevents SkyDrive files from syncing over metered connections.

While many in IT security will seek to disable SkyDrive entirely, I found my inner desktop administrator wishing for greater control over its settings synchronization. Navigate on a Windows 8.1 machine to Change PC Settings | SkyDrive | Sync Settings and you'll find what Windows can synchronize with SkyDrive. Settings are divided into roughly 10 categories that address the Start screen, appearance and desktop personalization, Windows apps, browser and passwords, language, ease of access and other behaviors.

These 10 categories are at this moment primarily designed around the needs of consumers. None are individually manageable via Group Policy or Windows PowerShell. Documentation beyond the basics of enabling and disabling the feature doesn't appear available.

Admittedly, SkyDrive isn't directly targeted toward enterprise IT environments. Microsoft offers other options like SkyDrive Pro with SharePoint 2013 and Work Folders in Windows Server 2012 R2 to address enterprise needs. Neither of these products address synchronizing Windows settings at this time. They only work on files and documents.

While no IT organization wants the entirety of users' home PC settings to follow them to the office (or vice versa), enterprise IT's embrace of trends like BYOD and the consumerization of IT are beginning to create use cases where synching some settings makes sense. Browser favorites, personal dictionaries and Start screen configurations immediately come to mind. Not only will users come to expect this capability, it will make them more productive.

For now, though, be prepared with a few smart Group Policy settings before you begin rolling out Windows 8.1. Keep a keen professional eye toward all future cross-device capabilities that "deep cloud integration" might soon make possible.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.


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