Automating Windows 7 Installation [1] & Thin Client Evaluation

Almost two years ago I wrote that I was planning to roll out Vista to student desktops. For a variety of reasons that didn’t happen. Some of the reasons were alluded to in that article – there were so many headaches with the new security model for a start. Last year I made a concerted effort to complete an image for staff laptops. This was an extremely time consuming procedure, not the least learning how to use the new version of Sysprep from the Windows Automated Installation Kit. It was around that time that I heard of the release of BDD (now MDT), which seemed in some respects to duplicate the AIK. I don’t know whether the AIK and MDT are supposed to be alternative options for installation, but all I can say so far from my MDT experience is that it is much superior to my Vista experience of the AIK. The reason I followed the manual Sysprep process for Vista was that I used Ghost to make the image. This time around I’m using MDT for the entire Windows 7 deployment process. It does the Sysprep automatically and makes the customisations a lot easier to produce.

The MDT includes all the tools necessary to automate as much as possible of your Windows 7 imaging and deployment experience. It can streamline the entire process from beginning to end. Going to Windows 7 on our laptops is ideally something we would have deferred until they started to come with it preinstalled, but this has not occurred in the timeframe that I had hoped. Because we will be looking to deploy new desktop PCs with 7 by the end of this year, and Office 2010 is now out, it is a good time to start looking into what is needed to roll out Windows 7. Definitely we won’t be using Ghost any more, we would have had to buy some more licenses probably to keep using it and I think it has no advantages now. I played with some of the advanced functionality when we first got the Ghost Solutions Suite a few years ago, but have not bothered since as it is too much work to set up.

In order to begin learning about and using MDT, I accessed the series of articles at covering Windows 7 deployment. I downloaded and installed MDT 2010 in order to start working on this project. The reference PC was then set up from scratch using Windows 7 x86 architecture. Although the x64 architecture is pretty good, as well, we are keeping 32 bit for compatibility reasons, the same as I did at home. While I have had no problems to date with x64 on my desktop, the same can’t necessarily be said for all of our laptop users, who may have older hardware for which 64 bit drivers are not available. As long as their laptops have less than 4 GB of RAM, we will use the 32 bit architecture for them. Once Windows 7 installation was completed, I installed some applications, including Office 2010, that we typically use. I then installed MDT and started setting it up. One issue to be aware of with MDT is whether the machine it is running on is x86 or x64. There are two different editions of MDT for the two architectures, and you have to install the matching edition. But on an x86 machine you can service both x86 and x64 images, on an x64 machine you can only service x64 images. Once I realised this, I transferred my MDT installation to a virtual machine running x86 Windows so that I can handle both types of images. MDT doesn’t require a WDS server to run – all you need is a computer or server that can have a share set up on it to allow files to be accessed over the network during operations.

The other big thing I have done a lot of work on lately is with HP thin clients running on a Remote Desktop server to see if they can do lots of things that a PC can do, almost as well. This has taken a lot of work in order to determine the right policy settings to use with an RDS server that is running WS 2008. Most apps have worked well, and it hasn’t been the issues with x64 that have caused problems, as few apps seem to be affected by this. In general, 99% of the time an app that will not run on 2008 x64 will not run on 2003 x86 either. We have tested the HP thin client with fully automated login, so that just turning it on will cause the desktop to come up on the server, and it can complete the entire process of client startup and login in less than a minute. There are still some technical issues to be solved, most notably that printing will have to be set up for it. I am aiming to have one in use in a classroom by the start of Term 3.