Automating Windows Vista Installations

When you are a system administrator, pretty much an important thing is to work out how to streamline setup and installation of computers using various kinds of mass duplication techniques. Historically one of the best known systems for doing this has been Binary Brothers’ Ghost software, now known as Symantec Ghost Solution Suite. Microsoft has always provided support for third party software such as this, while progressively over time devising its own equivalents. In the era of Windows Server 2003/Windows XP, the equivalence was provided for the first time in a system called Remote Install Services. I learned how to use it alongside my existing Ghost experience, and eventually concluded that due to certain RIS limitations, we would continue with Ghost for the time being; I then learned how to sysprep Windows XP images with Ghost and began cloning them across various architectures and platforms.

With the introduction of the Vista/2008 platform, Microsoft has revisited the automation scene and created new tools; they reasoned, correctly, that new imaging system are not only useful to mass duplication scenarios, the techniques employed can also be applied to personal installations on single computers. Specifically, disk imaging techniques are used to perform Vista and Windows 7 installations onto computers when using setup DVDs. This has resulted in a much faster installation experience for the majority of users. Microsoft has also sought to enhance its network-based installation technology, RIS, into a new product called Windows Deployment Services.

Of course, as a sysadmin, I now have to learn the new systems that Microsoft has compelled implementation of through Windows Vista. The latest version of Ghost can image Vista, but in order to get to a useable image at the end of it, we still have to use Microsoft’s technologies to prepare the source computer, and along the way, I’ll be covering my bases by using Microsoft’s imaging software, ImageX, as well. To get things going, I found these articles:

Deploying Vista with SysPrep and Imagex – The basics and getting started

Windows Vista USB Automated Install – creating the unattended installation file for Sysprep

To get started I am creating the sysprep.xml file using the settings shown in the first article. One question is that we are currently using a MAK. I don’t know whether I will put the key into my Sysprep.xml file. I might leave it out so that Vista can try activating to a Key Management Server, because although we don’t have enough Vista computers to use a KMS right now, we will in the future.

Before you can get going with this stuff, you have to install the Windows Automated Installation Kit from Microsoft. There have been a couple of releases; since I have SP1 of Vista I am using the 6001 release. It comes as a download of an ISO file; you can extract the files using 7Zip. An annoyance I am finding with Windows SIM is that it won’t mount an image that is on a network share. So much of this happens in Vista, that installations won’t run from a network share, yet the error message is some other silly thing. It seems in many ways that Microsoft has created this newly restrictive environment in Vista, yet they haven’t integrated the restrictions in the operating system in a way that is transparent to users or produces meaningful error messages.