Laying the Groundwork for Vista

Vista will be a complex installation, but there are a handful of tools that can help ease your pain.

By now you've certainly heard the news -- Vista is ready. The question is, are you ready for Vista?

You'll have to make a number of decisions before you actually being deploying Vista. Will you upgrade your existing machines or purchase new machines? What about application compatibility with Vista? And how do you actually plan to deploy Vista?

Among all the major releases coming out of Redmond these days, none will likely have the impact of Vista. There is help, though. Vista's new deployment technologies can make rolling out Vista far easier than Microsoft's desktop operating systems of the past. But even with these new deployment technologies, there is still a bit of a learning curve to fully understanding them and using them to their best advantage. Here we'll take a 10,000-foot view of these technologies to help you formulate your deployment plan.

Microsoft has developed two sets of tools to help out with your Vista deployment: the Business Desktop Deployment 2007 (BDD 2007) tool and the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK). Both the BDD and WAIK are free downloads from Microsoft. You can install them on Windows XP, 2000 or Server 2003 operating systems.

You'll need both the .NET Framework 2.0 and MSXML 6.0, however, before you can install either of them. The primary difference between the two is that the BDD includes additional scheduling tools (as well as everything that comes with the WAIK) to help you plan and manage your rollout.

Get Ready, Get Set ...
Before you even get that far though, you have some homework to do in advance. Microsoft has also developed a couple of new tools to help you determine whether your existing machines and applications are ready for Vista.

The first is the Windows Vista Readiness Assessment (WVRA) tool. This is designed to help you quickly identify which of your machines are Vista-ready and which are not. It can also create a list of recommendations to help you get them ready.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. The Windows System Image Manager (WSIM) lets you configure individual components.

The second indispensable tool is the Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 (ACT 5.0). ACT 5.0 inventories and analyzes any applications you have currently installed to identify potential compatibility issues in advance and deploy solution packages to help your applications run smoothly in the Vista environment.

To use ACT 5.0, you'll need a SQL database and the .NET Framework 1.1. Two of Vista's interesting new technologies -- Bitlocker and Windows Recovery Environment -- require a separate 1.5GB partition, distinct from the operating system partition. Once you've loaded and run these tools, you'll know how well your environment is ready to receive Vista.

Vista upgrades over previously installed operating systems can be considerably more complex than installing to an empty or just-wiped hard disk (Vista upgrades may be the subject of a future piece), so we'll focus on the so-called "bare metal" installations. To smoothly install Vista, Microsoft has a new imaging technology called the Windows Imaging Format. This uses Windows Image files (.WIM files) and is file-based versus sector-based.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. Vista's new Control Panel display lists domain and system information to help with maintenance and troubleshooting.

This is important because in the past, sector-based images -- like files created by Symantec's popular Ghost tool -- required that both the computer upon which you created the image and the target computer upon which you planned to install the image had to have the same hardware abstraction layer (HAL) and mass-storage device.

Another limitation of sector-based images is that those images can be difficult, if not impossible, to modify. So if you wanted to add a new application, device driver, patch or service pack after you had created an initial image, you most likely had to create an entirely new image.

Ready to Roll
There are two distinct phases to installing Vista on a bare metal machine. In phase one, you'll boot the target machine. Then, in phase two, you'll install the Vista operating system.

Figure 3
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Figure 3. The built-in Performance Monitor is an extremely useful addition to Vista.

To accomplish phase one, you either boot the bare metal machine from the Vista product DVD, boot it from a Pre-Installation Execution Environment (PXE) on a Windows Deployment Server (WDS -- the replacement for Remote Installation Services) or boot to a Windows Pre-Installation Environment (WinPE). The type of boot you choose for the target machine will determine the options available for phase two when you'll actually install Vista:

• Vista Product DVD: This will let you install Vista on a small number of machines via an interactive installation routine. You boot the target machine from the Vista product DVD and automatically launch Setup.exe (Setup.exe replaces winnt32.exe). Simply answer the setup questions and you're done.

• PXE Boot: A PXE boot connects the bare metal machine to a Windows Deployment Service (WDS) server. You initiate a PXE boot by pressing F12 when prompted during the boot sequence (but don't blink or you might miss it). The purpose of the WDS server is to store Vista images for PXE clients to download across the network.

• WinPE Boot: Microsoft designed WinPE to boot a scaled down 32-bit version of Windows that can easily fit on a CD, DVD or USB flash device. Previously, WinPE was only available to Software Assurance customers, but now it's available to anyone. This scaled down version of Windows offers a command prompt interface with limited functionality.

You can boot your target machine with the default WinPE (boot.wim) found on the Vista product DVD in the \sources folder, or create a custom WinPE using copype.cmd, peimg.exe, imagex.exe and oscdimg.exe.

Figure 4
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Figure 4. You can boot a bare metal machine with a PXE boot to connect to a deployment server.

If you create a custom WinPE, you can then include additional tools and applications while you're booted in your WinPE. It's a good idea to keep the size of your WinPE small, however, as the more you add to it, the longer it will take to boot the machine. You don't want to add more than you can load into the target machines' RAM, or the boot may never even happen.

There are a couple of caveats to using the WinPE approach. It wasn't designed to run as an operating system, so it reboots every 72 hours. Also, if you close WinPE's command-prompt interface, the system will reboot.

Figure 5
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Figure 5. Another resource-intensive aspect of the new interface is the multiple transparent windows.

Install Time
Now that you've booted the target machine, it's time to actually begin installing Vista. Much like the pre-deployment and boot sequence, you have several options for installing Vista. You can install from the Vista Product DVD, from a network share or a WDS Server.

Regardless of the installation method you choose, installing Vista requires that you create an installation image. Vista's new imaging technology comes with a default installation image called install.wim. You'll find it on the Windows Vista Product DVD in the \sources folder.

Figure 6
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Figure 6. Windows Deployment Services is used to create system images for rollout.

You can also create a custom image file that contains all your applications and third-party device drivers with tools you'll find in the BDD 2007 or WAIK. Creating a custom Vista image requires a master machine. Setting up a master machine is as easy as one, two, three:

1. Install Vista and any applications or additional software that you'd like to include in your image.

2. Run Sysprep /Generalize at the command prompt to remove all of the unique computer information (like the computer's SID and name). Then boot the master machine to a WinPE.

3. Capture the image. You have three methods with which to capture the installation image: the command line utility imagex.exe with the /capture switch, WDSCapture.exe (GUI version of imagex.exe /capture) from the command line, or WDSCapture from a WDS server.

Let's look at imagex.exe first. Using the following command assumes you've installed Vista on the C: partition (on the master machine), that the image will be named Vista.wim and that it's stored locally on the C: partition with a description of "C Drive": Imagex /capture C: C:\Vista.wim "C Drive."

WDSCapture.exe is the graphical equivalent of imagex.exe /capture. It launches a wizard that asks all the pertinent questions and creates a .wim image. You can run both imagex and WDSCapture from a WinPE (though you have to include imagex.exe in your custom WinPE, as it isn't there by default).

Figure 7
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Figure 7. The new Aero Glass interface is among the most visible of Vista's improvements, but you'll most likely need to upgrade your systems to be able to use it.

You can also run WDSCapture from a WDS server, but you'll have to take a few extra setup steps. First, create a special type of WinPE called a "Capture Boot Program" on the WDS server. Once again, you'll use the master machine you created earlier, and boot to a PXE. The WDS server will provide a list of images, including the Capture Boot Program you created on the WDS server. The master machine then boots the Capture Boot Program, which is really just a special WinPE that automatically launches WDSCapture.exe. Once you've created an image file, you can store it on a set of CDs, a DVD, a WDS server or a network share.

Consistency Is Key
Whether you're deploying Vista to 20 or 20,000 machines, answering the same questions over and over again gets old. Let's face it -- sometimes you can't help but answer the questions differently from one machine to the next. This can create a potentially unstable and inconsistent Vista installation.

The Setup Manager used to guide you through this process. Now there's the Windows System Image Manager (WSIM). This new tool creates .xml files with all the answers to those setup questions. The .xml files created by WSIM are called, appropriately enough, answer files. If you've worked with answer files before, you may be thinking, "Answer files aren't new. They have been around for years."

Figure 8
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Figure 8. You can also use a WinPE boot to get Vista going on certain systems.

Not these answer files. These are new and improved. The new .xml answer files not only answer all the setup questions identically, but also let you add device drivers and third-party applications to your Vista installations.

Answer files also contain Components and Packages. To understand components you need to first understand the Vista installation process. A Vista installation is performed in stages and certain configuration parameters are applied in each stage. These stages are called "Configuration Passes" and there are a total of seven, although not all passes are needed for an installation.

It's important to add components to the appropriate configuration pass. For example, partitioning and formatting a hard drive are performed in the first configuration -- WindowsPE. Imagine if you formatted the installation partition in the last pass instead of the first. You would've just wiped out your new Vista installation.

Creating an answer file in WSIM is a simple process. Just add the component to your answer file, highlight the component in the answer file and configure the component in the properties pane. There's so much to this tool that it could fill an entire separate article. Look for step-by-step instructions for each of these tools next month and in upcoming articles.


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