Microsoft Eases Vista Deployment

Review: New tools allow it organizations to upgrade with less fuss than with XP

Deployment tools for Microsofts Windows Vista are barely out of the oven—heck, Vista itself is still cooling—but eWeek Labs donned some fireproof mitts and used these tools to put the OS on our systems.

eWeek Labs tests of new deployment tools from Microsoft show that most organizations should be able to upgrade to Vista with far less fuss than it took to upgrade to Windows XP.

We evaluated the Beta 3 version of Microsofts BDD (Business Desktop Deployment) 2007. BDD 2007 includes WAIK (Windows Automated Installation Kit), which itself includes Windows SIM (System Image Manager), WinPE (Windows Preinstallation Environment) and ImageX. WinPE and ImageX are currently in their final form, while BDD 2007 and WAIK are expected to be finished in the first quarter of 2007.

This host of Microsoft tools goes hand in hand with fundamental changes that have modularized Windows and made the operating system language-neutral and independent from the HAL (hardware abstraction layer). Vista can detect which HAL is required and install it. The chief caveat to HAL independence is that 32- and 64-bit architectures require separate Vista image files. However, getting the number of images down from tens to two is a big step forward for most IT managers.

BDD 2007 provides an overarching set of practice guides for planning and preparing for a Vista deployment. BDD 2007 also includes tools to test for application compatibility with Vista, perform hardware and software inventories of existing machines, and generally assess the readiness of an organization for Vista deployment.

BDD 2007 works with Microsofts SMS (Systems Management Server) 2003 to provide organizations with zero-touch installation for systems deployed in the field. eWeek Labs will evaluate deployment using SMS 2003 in future Vista deployment articles.

Building Block

The fundamental building block of a Vista deployment is the WIM (Windows Imaging Format)-based image file. The WIM is manipulated with the ImageX command-line tool that is part of WAIK. WIM and ImageX are among the biggest changes that IT managers will encounter when preparing to deploy Vista.

In our tests, we created a reference installation of Vista on a Gateway E-6610D PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86GHz processor and 1GB of system RAM.

We started our deployment by first downloading and installing the WAIK components (from www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=993c567d-f12c-4676-917f-05d9de73ada4&displaylang=en) onto a PC running Windows XP. WAIK also can be run on Windows Server 2003.

After installing WAIK, we navigated to Windows SIM, the tool for creating the unattended installation answer files now used by Vista. Answer files store the custom settings that are applied during Windows setup. System managers likely will be pleased by the fact that there is now a single unattended answer file, called unattend.xml, that replaces sysprep.inf, wimborn.ini and cmdlines.txt.

While it isnt necessary to combine all configuration items in a single file, all configuration items do go into an XML-formatted file. We selected the Windows Vista Ultimate image and the corresponding catalog, a binary file that contains the state information for settings and packages in the selected Windows image.

We created new answer files many times during our testing, and, from our experience, it takes a significant amount of time to understand all the implications of choices made during the process. IT organizations must account for that time and should involve top-level system experts in designing the answers that will be used in the final version of the unattend.xml file.

The good news is that nearly all the answer file fields include validation checking. The fields that dont have drop-down lists restrict choices to valid character lists. In our tests, we used the new unattend file format to specify the disk and partition number that should be created and used to install the Windows Vista image.

Deployment Considerations

Deploying Vista is more than a matter of using the new tools and procedures outlined in this review.

For one thing, the minimum size of a Vista image is about 2GB (compressed)—far bigger than what will fit on a single CD, which is what we have been accustomed to using with Windows XP and Windows 2000 deployments. And the image file will only get bigger once additional image components are added, to accommodate organization-specific languages, drivers, packages and so on.

During our tests, however, we found that adding duplicate components to a Vista image file did not significantly increase the image file size because Windows SIM uses a single-file instance.

In Windows SIM, we expanded the components from our Vista catalog to display available settings. Many of these settings will be familiar to experienced system managers.

We added components simply by selecting them and then right-clicked on each component to assign it to one of seven configuration passes made during the Windows SIM processing. In nearly all cases, the correct pass level was the only choice presented when we selected components.

Organizations should devote the bulk of planning time to getting the values right for the components that need to be installed. For example, based on hardware inventory reports we ran using third-party tools already in place on our network, we knew that all our systems had hard drives with a minimum capacity of 40GB.

In the first round of tests, we were unconcerned with saving any data on the local drives. Thus, we specified in the unattend.xml file that the Vista setup disk configuration component should wipe the disk, create a 37GB primary partition (leaving a margin to ensure that the installation proceeded) and show an error message on the screen only if an error occurred.

We also specified that the partitions should be formatted as NTFS (NT File System) and labeled EWKLABS, using C as the drive letter with a partition ID of 1.

Many of these seemingly small details were significant in later package installations. We recommend that IT managers become intimately familiar with using Windows SIM to examine answer files that are used in the organization. It also would be helpful if Microsoft included some kind of reporting mechanism so that unattend.xml files could be communicated inside the IT organization, with changes and implementation dates tracked.

After selecting all components and providing settings for each, we ran the "validate answer file" utility. While Windows SIM does an excellent job of ensuring that only valid answers are provided for each component setting, it is very easy for valid-but-incorrect answers to be entered by IT staff. This was reinforced for us several times during testing when installations failed on lab systems because of human error during file creation.

We saved our unattend.xml file to a USB key as autounatted.xml. On the Gateway PC that functioned as our reference, or master, PC, we used the Vista DVD and the answer file on the USB key to run through Vista setup—thus creating our master Vista image. We used the Microsoft Sysprep (System Preparation) tool that IT system managers are well familiar with to generalize (formerly known as "reseal") the reference PC image for distribution.

WinPE

After creating the Vista image on our reference system, we captured the image for deployment using a network share. For this portion of our testing we used WinPE, which is the replacement for MS-DOS in system installation. WinPE is a minimal 32-bit operating system with limited services that is built on the Vista kernel. We used WinPE to start a miniversion of Vista from the USB key and from the network to install and troubleshoot Vista.

On our Windows XP system with WAIK installed, we easily created the WinPE files needed to create an ISO image that we burned to DVD along with the reference Vista image file that we created for our environment.

On our reference PC with Vista, we restarted the system by booting from the WinPE disk. We had copied ImageX onto the WinPE disk so that we could finish the deployment process. Once the Gateway PC was booted to WinPE, we used ImageX at the command line to capture the master Vista image. We copied the image to a network share, a process that was enabled by WinPE.

We also created a wimscript.ini file that instructed ImageX to ignore certain log files, such as ntfs.log, during execution. There are well-documented instructions for creating and using the wimscript.ini, and we had no trouble with it in our WinPE environment.

From the WinPE environment, we used the diskpart command to format the hard drive. We matched the parameters we provided during the creation of our reference system. Once the hard drive was ready, we copied the reference Vista image from the network share and applied the image to the hard drive using the ImageX tool. With the image installed, we started up our newly deployed image on a variety of equipment with no problems.

We could easily modify images to accommodate new drivers using the ImageX tool. Because WIM images are file-based, not sector-based, they can be modified without first being deployed to a computer (a process that has been one of the biggest slowdowns in image creation). The implications of WIM are significant in terms of improving IT productivity.

Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at cameron_sturdevant@ziffdavis.com.

COST ANALYSIS: Deployment tools from Microsoft, including BDD 2007, are included in the license cost of Vista. BDD 2007 eases deployment chores, but IT managers should figure on spending a significant amount of time—some of it high-level systems managers—to get images configured correctly.

Evaluation Shortlist

Altiris Altiris Deployment Solution

Software that creates operating system images (www.altiris.com)

LANDesks LANDesk Management Suite

Deploys operating systems and provides remote control capabilities (www.landesk.com)

Symantecs Ghost

Provides a range of image tools and utilities (www.symantec.com)