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Automating the Windows 7 Installation : Choosing Automated Deployment Options (part 3) - An Overview of the System Preparation Tool and Disk Imaging

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4. An Overview of the System Preparation Tool and Disk Imaging

The System Preparation Tool (Sysprep.exe) is used to prepare a computer for disk imaging, and the disk image can then be captured using ImageX—a new imaging management tool included with Windows 7—or third-party imaging software.

Disk imaging is the process of taking a snapshot of a computer and then using that snapshot to create new computers, thus allowing for automated deployments. The reference, or source, computer has Windows 7 installed and is configured with the settings and applications that should be installed on the target computers. The image (snapshot) is then created and can be transferred to other computers, thus installing the operating system, settings, and applications that were defined on the reference computer.

Advantage of Imaging

Using the System Preparation Tool and disk imaging is a good choice (and the most commonly used in the real world! for automatic deployment when you have a large number of computers with similar configuration requirements or machines that need to be rebuilt frequently.

For example, Stallion Training Center, a Microsoft education center that I work for, reinstalls the same software every week for new classes. Imaging is a fast and easy way to simplify the deployment process.

Using Imaging Software

As I have stated before, I am a consultant and trainer, but I was an IT manager for many years. In the real world, imaging software is the most common way to install or reinstall corporate computers.

Most organizations use images to create new machines quickly and easily, but they also use them to reimage end users' machines that crash.

In most companies, end users will have space on a server (home folders) to allow them to store data. We give our end users space on the server because this way, we need to back up only the servers at night and not the end users' machines. If your end users place all of their important documents on the server, it gets backed up.

Now, if we are also using images in our company and an end user's machine crashes, we just reload the image and they are backed up and running in minutes. Since their documents are being saved on the server, they do not lose any of their information.

Many organizations use third-party imaging software instead of using Sysprep.exe and ImageX. This is another good way of imaging your Windows 7 machines. Just make sure your third-party software supports the Windows 7 operating system.

To perform an unattended install, the System Preparation Tool prepares the reference computer by stripping away any computer-specific data, such as the security identifier (SID), which is used to uniquely identify each computer on the network; any event logs; and any other unique system information. The System Preparation Tool also detects any Plug and Play devices that are installed and can adjust dynamically for any computers that have different hardware installed.

When the client computer starts an installation using a disk image, you can customize what is displayed on the Windows Welcome screen and the options that are displayed through the setup process. You can also fully automate when and how the Windows Welcome screen is displayed during the installation process by using the /oobe option with the System Preparation Tool and an answer file named Oobe.xml.

Sysprep is a utility that is good only for setting up a new machine. You do not use Sysprep to image a computer for upgrading a current machine. There are a few switches that you can use in conjunction with Sysprep to configure the Sysprep utility for your specific needs. Table 1 shows you some of the Sysprep switches and what they will do for you when used.

Table 1. Sysprep switches
/pnpForces a mini-setup wizard to start at reboot so that all Plug and Play devices can be recognized.
/genera1izeThis allows Sysprep to remove all system-specific data from the Sysprep image. If you're running the GUI version of Sysprep, this is a check box option.
/oobeInitiates the Windows Welcome screen at the next reboot.
/auditInitiates Sysprep in Audit mode.
/nosidgenSysprep does not generate a new SID on the computer restart. Forces a mini-setup on restart.
/rebootStops and restarts the computer system.
/quietRuns without any confirmation dialog messages being displayed.
/miniTells Sysprep to run the mini-setup on the next reboot.

The Windows System Preparation Tool is a free utility that comes on all Windows operating systems. By default, the Sysprep utility can be found on Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7 operating systems in the \Windows\system32\sysprep directory.

Real World Scenario: The Problems with Deployment Software

For many years, when you had to create many machines that each had a Microsoft operating system on it, you would have to use files to help deploy the multiple systems.

Then, multiple third-party companies came out with software that allowed you to take a picture of the Microsoft operating system and you could deploy that picture to other machines. One advantage of this is that ail the software that is installed on the system could also be part of that picture. This was a great way to copy all the software on a machine over to another machine.

There was one major problem for years—SID numbers. All computers get assigned a unique number that represents them on a domain network and that number is called a security identifier (SID) number. The problem for a long time was that when you copied a machine to another machine, the SID number was also copied.

Microsoft released Sysprep many years ago and that helped solve this problem. Sysprep would allow you to remove the SID number so that a third-party software package could image it to another machine. Many third-party image software products now also remove the SID numbers, but Sysprep was one of the first utilities to help solve this problem.

When you decide to use Sysprep to set up your images, there are a few rules that you must follow for Sysprep to work properly:

  • You can use images to restart the Windows activation clock. The Windows activation clock starts to decrease as soon as Windows starts for the first time. You can restart the Windows activation clock only three times using Sysprep.

  • The computer on which you're running Sysprep has to be a member of a workgroup. The machine can't be part of a domain. If the computer is a member of the domain, when you run Sysprep, the computer will automatically be removed from the domain.

  • When installing the image, the system will prompt you for a product key. During the install you can use an answer file, which in turn will have all the information needed for the install and you will not be prompted for any information.

  • A third-party utility or ImageX is required to deploy the image that is created from Sysprep.

  • If you are using Sysprep to capture an NTFS partition, any files or folders that are encrypted will become corrupt and unreadable.

One new advantage to Sysprep and Windows 7 is that you can use Sysprep to prepare a new machine for duplication. You can use Sysprep to image a Windows 7 machine. The following steps are necessary to image a new machine:

  1. Install the Windows 7 operating system.

  2. Install all components on the OS.

  3. Run Sysprep /generalize to create the image.

When you image a computer using the Windows Sysprep utility, a Windows image (.wim) file is created. Most third-party imaging software products can work with the Windows image file.

4.1. Advantages of the System Preparation Tool

The following are advantages of using the System Preparation Tool as a method for automating Windows 7 installations:

  • For large numbers of computers with similar hardware, it greatly reduces deployment time by copying the operating system, applications, and Desktop settings from a reference computer to an image, which can then be deployed to multiple computers.

  • Using disk imaging facilitates the standardization of Desktops, administrative policies, and restrictions throughout an organization.

  • Reference images can be copied across a network connection or through DVDs that are physically distributed to client computers.

4.2. Disadvantages of the System Preparation Tool

There are some disadvantages of using the System Preparation Tool as a method for automating Windows 7 installations:

  • ImageX, third-party imaging software, or hardware disk-duplicator devices must be used for an image-based setup.

  • The version of the System Preparation Tool that shipped with Windows 7 must be used. An older version of Sysprep cannot be used on a Windows 7 image.

  • The System Preparation Tool will not detect any hardware that is not Plug and Play compliant.

Overview of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (Windows AIK)

Another way to install Windows 7 is to use the Windows Automated Installation Kit (Windows AIK). The Windows AIK is a set of utilities and documentation that allows an administrator to configure and deploy Windows operating systems. An administrator can use the Windows AIK to do the following:

  • Capture Windows images with ImageX

  • Configure and edit images by using the Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) utility

  • Create Windows PE images

  • Migrate user data and profiles using the User State Migration Tool (USMT)

  • Centrally manage volume activations by using the Volume Activation Management Tool(VAMT)

The Windows AIK can be installed and configured on the following operating systems:

  • Windows 7

  • Windows Server 2008

  • Windows Server 2003 with SP2

  • Windows Vista with SP1

The Windows AIK is a good solution for organizations that need to customize the Windows deployment environments. The Windows AIK allows an administrator to have the flexibility needed for mass deployments of Windows operating systems. Since every organization's needs are different, the Windows AIK allows you to use all or just part of the deployment tools available. It allows you to manage deployments by using some additional tools.

Microsoft Deployment Toolkit The tools included with this part of the Windows AIK will allow an administrator to easily deploy and configure Windows operating systems and images.

Application Compatibility Toolkit When new Windows operating systems are installed, applications that ran on the previous version of Windows may not work properly. The Application Compatibility Toolkit allows an administrator to help solve these issues before they occur.

Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit The MAP toolkit is a utility that will locate computers on a network and then perform a thorough inventory of them. This inventory can then be used to determine which machines can have Windows 7 installed.

5. Summary of Windows 7 Deployment Options

Table 2 summarizes the installation options for Windows 7 and notes the required client hardware, server requirements, and whether the option supports a clean install or upgrade.

Table 2. Summary of Windows 7 installation options
 MDT2010Windows AIKUnattended InstallationWDSSystem Preparation Tool
Required Client HardwarePC that meets Windows 7 requirements, access to the networkPC that meets Windows 7 requirementsPC that meets Windows 7 requirements, access to the networkPC that meets the Windows 7 requirements and is PXE compliantReference computer with Windows 7 installed and configured; PC that meets the Windows 7 requirements; ImageX, third-party disk imaging software, or hardware disk duplicator device
Required Server Hardware and ServicesNetwork installation, distribution server.None. Windows AIK can be on any compatible machine.None with DVD; if using network installation, distribution server with preconfigured client images.Windows Server 2003 w/SP1 or Windows Server 2008 to act as a WDS server with image files. Active Directory, DNS server, and DHCP server.None.
Clean Install or Upgrade OnlyClean installClean installClean install or upgradeClean installClean install

Table 3 summarizes the installation tools and files that are used with unattended, automated installations of Windows 7, the associated installation method, and a description of each tool.

Table 3. Summary of Windows 7 unattended deployment utilities
Tool or FileAutomated Installation OptionDescription
Setup. ExeUnattended installationProgram used to initiate the installation process
Unattend.xmlUnattended installationAnswer file used to customize installation queries
Windows System Image ManagerUnattended installationProgram used to create answer files to be used for unattended installations
ImageX.exeSysprepCommand-line utility that works in conjunction with Sysprep to create and manage Windows 7 image files for deployment
Sysprep.exeSysprepSystem Preparation Tool, which prepares a source reference computer that will be used in conjunction with a distribution share or with disk duplication through ImageX, third-party software, or hardware disk-duplication devices

The Windows 7 installation utilities and resources relating to automated deployment are found in a variety of locations. Table 4 provides a quick reference for each utility or resource and its location.

Table 4. Location of Windows 7 deployment utilities and resources
Sysprep.ExeIncluded with Windows 7; installed to %WINDIR%\system32\sysprep
ImageXInstalled with the WALK; installed to C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\x86\imagex.exe
Windows System Image ManagerInstalled with WALK; installed to C:\ProgramFi 1es\Windows AIK\Tools\Image Manager\ImgMgr.exe

Now that you have seen some of the ways you can install Windows 7, let's take a more detailed look at each one.

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