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Creating Basic Windows Images : Building a Reference Computer (part 2) - Preparing the reference computer for imaging

3/23/2012 4:03:50 PM

4. Preparing the reference computer for imaging

After the reference computer is customized for your environment, you must prepare it for the imaging process. When imaging computers, a copy is made of one computer and applied to others. This is both helpful and problematic. The advantages have been discussed and primarily deal with reduced deployment times and extremely consistent workstations.

The disadvantage of an exact copy is that it is an exact copy. More specifically, items such as the computer name, IP address, and Security Identifier (SID) are copied to each and every computer. This problem is overcome by generalizing the system before creating an image from it. This generalization process is carried out using the System Preparation Tool (sysprep.exe). You can see the System Preparation Tool, which is located on Windows Vista systems in the c:\windows\system32\sysprep folder, in Figure 2.

Figure 2. System Preparation Tool user interface

Cleanup action

The System Preparation Tool allows you to adjust three settings in the user interface. The first setting is the type of cleanup action. The choices are OOBE or audit modes. When the cleanup action is set to OOBE mode, the computer will begin Windows Welcome, also known as Out of Box Experience, on the next reboot. This setting allows the user to name the computer, configure network settings, join the computer to a domain, and create user accounts and other setup items. You see this interface when you turn on a new computer for the first time. In general, this is the cleanup mode you should use for creating your images.

You may also select System Audit Mode, which will bypass Windows Welcome on next reboot. By circumventing Windows Welcome, you are given access to the desktop without having to run through any wizards. On the other hand the computer has not been properly configured for use. Audit mode is used for either post-imaging configuration or multi-tiered image building, where an organizational image is built and remote locations will customize the image and then configure the cleanup action for OOBE, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Example of multi-tiered image building


The generalize option is the main focus of the tool. When this option is selected, all unique information is stripped from the computer. In particular, the computer name, network settings, End User License Agreement acceptance, Product Key, Security Identifier (SID), user name, and computer name are removed. In addition, other system cleanup is performed and the Windows activation grace period is reset. Typically, the machine would then shut down. On the next startup, the computer would then presumably start Windows Welcome to prompt the user for the missing information. However, before starting Windows again an image will be captured while the computer is in the generalized state.

Shutdown options

After the System Preparation tool has completed its work, it can exit the program, reboot the computer, or shut down the computer. When creating images, the most common desire is to have the computer shut down so that you may then proceed to capture an image. However, you may already have a bootable CD or USB flash drive (UFD) attached and wish to immediately reboot.

Understanding the limitations of Sysprep

Although an image can be generalized as many times as you like, the Windows activation grace period will only be reset a maximum of three times (five times for Vista Enterprise). When the grace period expires, the computer will enter a notification-based experience where the user is constantly prompted to activate and becomes virtually useless to your end users. This limitation is significant because it essentially limits the number of times you can apply, modify, and recapture an image. It should now be apparent why being able to modify an image offline is so useful.

Another approach to managing images offline is to use a virtual machine as a Reference Computer. Since a VM is nothing but a set of files, you just copy these files before running Sysprep and then you run Sysprep on the copy. Doing this means that the reference computer is not changed, so you can run Sysprep as many times as desired. Keeping a running copy of the reference computer also makes it a lot easier to update and patch without having to perform these actions in an offline mode.

Answer file

The System Preparation tool may also be run completely from the command line. You can see the available command line parameters in Figure 4. From the command line, Sysprep has the additional capability of specifying an answer file, which cannot be done from the graphical user interface. For this reason it is most likely you will desire to use Sysprep from the command line and not from its graphical user interface.

Figure 4. System Preparation Tool command line parameters

When the /unattend option is used with Sysprep, it specifies the answer file that should be used on next reboot. The assumption is that the system has been generalized and on next reboot will need information to be provided before being ready for use by the end user. Normally, this information would be provided as part of Windows Welcome. If you do not wish to manually enter a product key, accept the license agreement, create user accounts, or configure localization settings you may provide an answer file to be used. The process here is very similar to the answer file you provided to automate the setup of your reference computer, as the image shipped on the Vista DVD is in a generalized state.

The answer file may be given any valid Windows filename and may be stored in any currently accessible location. The Sysprep utility will copy the file to C:\Windows\panther and rename it to unattend.xml. Assuming there are no changes, you may reuse the answer file created to automate the reference computer installation created in a previous walkthrough.

5. Walkthrough: Preparing the computer for imaging

To generalize the system, specify an answer file, and shut down the reference computer, use the following command changing the path to the answer file to match your needs. The entire command should be entered on a single line, although it has been wrapped below due to length.

C:\windows\system32\sysprep\sysprep.exe /generalize /oobe /
   shutdown /unattend:w:\unattend\basic_unattend.xml
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