Using Microsoft's Free Tools to Image and Deploy Windows 7
Microsoft provides freely available and quite powerful tools that can help you image and deploy Windows 7. This Windows 7 white paper explores those components and their processes used during these deployments. It considers and explains every step of a Lite Touch installation, while also detailing the benefits of ImageX, the WIM file format, and other freely available Microsoft deployment tools.
We've all seen the infomercial, so it's not a difficult choice between hours of work or something that allows you to "set it and forget it" while getting the same results. Imaging begs a similar, more specific, question; should you go to each individual machine to install the OS and necessary applications, or should you automate the process? The decision to automate is not a difficult one on the surface, but many organizations do not take advantage of its efficiencies due to either lack of training or the seemingly high cost of implementation.
Over the last decade, Microsoft has made available an impressive set of tools that provides everything necessary to implement what is known as a Lite Touch Installation (LTI). You will have to physically interact with all PCs that are being imaged, but the flexibility of an installation is increased while your overall work time is greatly decreased. If you require a push deployment where a console controls which PCs are imaged and no user interaction is required, look into Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager. However, while Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) requires additional licensing, the LTI tools are completely free.
What Sets These Tools Apart?
Of course, Microsoft isn't the only player in the imaging market. Symantec, IBM, Acronis, and many others have been doing this for years, but the latest iteration of Microsoft's toolset does challenge the competition by addressing a number of frustrations that are generally taken as givens in imaging. The first differentiator is the fact that Microsoft's image format, known by its .WIM file extension, uses file-based imaging instead of sector-based imaging. To simplify that, sector-based imaging does not care what's on the hard drive. It just takes a picture of the hard drive sector by sector and records it into a relatively static image. File-based imaging actually records each file individually, creating a more flexible image that can be modified.
If all you need to do is create an image, you will probably see better speed using sector-based imaging. But, anyone who has really worked with imaging knows that the work is not done after just creating the image; you have to maintain it. As hot fixes, service packs, and updates are released, and as new drivers and language packs are required, your image quickly becomes outdated. Normally, this would require the admin to deploy the image to a machine, update the machine, and then recreate the image from that reference machine. With WIM files, you can update the file itself without having to deploy it to a physical machine first.
While offline imaging is nice, there's another issue that makes Microsoft's WIM files so exciting. To continue the comparison, sector-based images are hardware-specific while WIM files are hardware-indifferent. When sector-based images are applied to a computer with a chipset different from the one they were created on, they simply do not work. Images stored in the WIM file format work perfectly when installed to different hardware platforms. Usually, you would need to create and maintain an image for each type of desktop, laptop, or netbook. WIM files allow you to use a single image. Remember, these tools are free.
The Reference Machine
The first step in imaging is making the perfect machine. This will be the box that acts as the reference point for all future clones. (For the geeks among us, think Jango Fett.) This computer should be cleaned of any junk files, contain all required software, and have all current updates. While this process can certainly be done manually, stay with our theme of automation and consider starting the process using Window System Image Manager (SIM) to help create your reference machine. (See Figure 1.)
Windows SIM helps in the creation of an answer file. If you are performing a manual installation of Windows, you have to sit at the computer and answer the questions that come up during the process. On which partition should it be installed? What language and keyboard format should be used? What is the product key? If you create an answer file with the answers to all these questions, you do not have sit there while the install takes place.
Many of you may have created your own answer files in the past without SIM, but this tool adds a graphical environment and a much greater level of control. Browse to the OS installation disc to specify the variables for which the answer file can input values. SIM will then display them in the Windows Image section at the bottom left, and you can choose which variables you would like to set up and the time at which they will be applied. The timing capability is possible now that Windows 7 installations are broken up into sections, called passes. By putting each variable into the appropriate pass, you choose when the variable will be applied.