Create, Tune, and Manage Software Installations for Windows
Help is on the way for the harassed system administrator.
When I first had to deal with "packaging" a program to install on several
PCs, the process was simple: get it working on one machine, zip the directory
it was installed in, and then save it to a couple of floppies. Installation
was just as easy: pop the first floppy in the PC you were installing to,
and execute the self-extracting zip file. Of course, this was back in
the days of DOS, when the closest things to a registry were the config.sys
and autoexec.bat files. I didn't have to worry about registering DLLs
or making sure that I didn't overwrite shared system files with older
or incompatible versions.
These days, ensuring that a Windows application is correctly installed
and configured on all the PCs in the organization can be a daunting task
indeed. Microsoft tried to make things "easier" with their Windows Installer
technology, but as is the case with many a Microsoft SDK, this is not
a solution for the faint of heart. Enter InstallShield Admin Studio 2.0.
Based on the venerable InstallShield Developer installation scripting
tool, the Admin Studio promises to make the system administrator's task
of tweaking Windows application installation packages a lot easier. With
its intuitive interface, well-documented help screens, and collection
of wizards to do just about everything, it lives up to that promise.
The InstallShield Admin Studio offers a comprehensive environment that
allows you to create, modify, fine tune, and test your installation automation
efforts. It's designed to work with Microsoft's MSI (Microsoft Installer)
standard. You can repackage traditional setups into .msi files and you
can open existing .msi files and modify them as you please. If you are
the adventurous sort, you can also use the product to create .msi files
from scratch. Finally, Admin Studio includes a tool you can use for conflict
detection and correction; a handy feature, especially if you need to support
As its name implies, Admin Studio is actually a collection of several
separate applications, "integrated" into one software bundle. There are
- RepackagerCreate .msi packages from traditional setup programs.
- AuthorCreate new .msi files from scratch, and to enhance repackaged
setups created with Repackager.
- ConflictSolverIdentify and resolve application conflicts.
- TunerCustomize setups.
Although the various components share a common look and feel, they lack
some key integration features. For example, you can't launch one of these
tools from within another. Even so, Admin Studio provides a wealth of
functionality-if you know how to make use of it. I strongly recommend
that you go through the included tutorial. It's well worth the half hour
or so you'll spend on it.
Installation of this product was effortless (a nice touch, since the
very product was used to create the installation package) and quick. My
only beef is with the initial setup screen; it took me a couple of moments
to figure out what I actually needed to click to start the installation.
But I did like the fact that I didn't have to reboot my system to complete
the install process.
When the installation finished I immediately launched the program. The
main interface was easy to follow and navigate, and I liked the tips that
were displayed. Launching the various tools was easy, although I did encounter
a runtime error with the Author program. Dismissing the error seemed to
work, as the program came up just fine after that, but as I continued
to try and work with the Author program, I encountered more runtime errors.
I called InstallShield tech support, and they gave me the standard, "Re-install
the program and that should take care of it." So I did that, and sure
enough, I encountered the same problem. So I called them again, and they
had me email them a particular log file specific to the Author program.
After reviewing the log file they identified the problem (something about
the combination of certain versions of Windows 2000 and IE), sent me some
replacement files, and that took care of things. Be sure to thank me-my
frustrations provided fodder for their latest Knowledge Base article.
| The main InstallShield interface provides a launching
pad for each of the included applications as well as tips on effectively
using them002E. (Click image to view larger version.)
The Repackager program allows you to create a working .msi file
from a "regular" program (that is, one without an .msi file already available)
with little more effort than clicking through a few wizard screens. I
tried it out on a VB app I threw together, and it worked like a charm.
I simply launched the Repackager program via a network share from a clean
workstation machine (as recommended by one of the program's tips), ran
the install of the program I was configuring, and then let InstallShield
do the rest.
I copied the resulting .msi package to another machine and ran it. My
little VB app installed quite nicely, thank you very much! I also used
the Repackager on an off-the-shelf application. The process was pretty
painless, but it took what seemed like forever for the analysis phases
to complete. This isn't InstallShield's fault-you can thank Microsoft
for having such a humongous registry.
You see, Repackager first scans your entire system, taking a "snapshot"
of the registry and other system information. Then you run the regular
setup program for your application. Repackager then runs the analysis
process again, and makes a note of what changed. Using this information,
it finally creates your .msi file.
Most system administrators are not software developers, and therefore
don't have the component-level application knowledge required to properly
use the Author tool. Designed to create .msi files from scratch, this
tool is not for the faint of heart. The Project Wizard does make the task
a little less daunting, and what the program calls "Setup Best Practices"
are viewable from many of the screens. The tool also offers a wizard to
import Visual Basic projects and turn them into full-featured .msi packages.
As I played with Author, I fell in love with its wizard for importing
VB projects. I simply pointed the wizard to one of my Visual Basic projects
(one that had not even been compiled yet!), answered a few easy questions,
and presto! I was the proud owner of one nice little .msi package.
To realize the full benefit of this tool you need to spend a lot of time
with it. But it's worth it, as this component lives up to its name. ConflictSolver
uses a database, either Access or SQL Server, to keep track of everything.
You don't have to have Microsoft Access to use the program, but if you
want to use SQL as your database you need to supply the Server.
You start by importing an .msi file. After you tell ConflictSolver which
.msi file you want to import, it performs a validation on the file, producing
a listing of errors, warnings and informational messages. You can also
run the validation process on its own. I validated webfldrs.msi, a Microsoft-provided
application that configures Office to save documents directly to FrontPage-enabled
web servers. ConflictSolver found 89 warnings and 12 errors.
Next, you can use a variety of methods to resolve any conflicts. The
easiest approach is to use the Conflict Wizard. It takes your .msi file
and compares it to packages already in the database. Obviously, adding
more applications to the database will increase the tool's ability to
resolve potential conflicts. The sample database that ships with the program
includes Office 2000, McAfee VirusScan, WinZip, and InstallShield's own
Tuner. Once the conflicts have been identified, you can use the Resolution
Wizard to fix them.
What's the first thing you do after installing Office on a machine? Disable
that obnoxious paper clip! Most system administrators have learned that
they can disable this feature, and tweak other aspects of Office, before
installation by using Office's customization tools. Wouldn't it be great
to be able to do this with other applications? Tuner makes it possible.
Tuner works with transform files. These files (with an .mst extension)
are used in conjunction with msi files. A transform file contains specific
information about which features should be installed, which directories
should be used, and other installation-specific details. Many off-the-shelf
applications include transform files for certain situations. For example,
the Microsoft Office resource Kit includes an .mst file that must be used
to properly install Office on a Windows 2000 server running Terminal Services.
To create a new transform file, you first tell Tuner which .msi file
to use. Tuner loads the file, then starts you on a six-step process to
create the .mst file. As you progress through each step, Tuner prompts
you for whatever information it needs. The last step is to tell Tuner
how to implement the new transform package: as a share point on a network
server, as a standalone setup, or by using Microsoft's System Management
Do You Need This Program?
AdminStudio is not a program that you get up to speed with in a day or
two. You'll need to spend some quality time with the program before you
can get much real world use out of it. If you're supporting a handful
of PCs, it's probably not worth the effort. But if you find yourself installing
and configuring applications over and over again, AdminStudio just may
be what you need.
Kevin Kohut has been involved with information technology in some form or another for over 18 years, and has a strong business management background as well. As a computer consultant, Kevin has helped both small businesses and large corporations realize the benefits of applying technology to their business needs.