Vista Deployment – As in Hollywood, Image Is Everything

With the debut of Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) last week, Microsoft has begun the final test phase before releasing its new desktop operating system to the marketplace. From previous experience, it’s clear many IT shops will spend as many as 18 months testing the final code before moving forward. But now is the time to begin planning how to best deploy Microsoft’s first major upgrade to Windows in five years.

Additionally, there are always early adopters who want to get in at the bleeding edge of the technology curve in hopes of gaining competitive advantage over rival companies.

One prime example: Microsoft’s internal IT department – in the company’s longstanding tradition of “eating its own dogfood” – has already garnered plenty of experience deploying Vista over the past three or four months. MSIT began deploying Vista to users’ PCs with the beginning of Beta 2 last spring. To date, they have rolled out more than 25,000 copies.

Key to Microsoft’s own deployment and, the company believes, to simplifying rollouts for corporate customers, is a new system imaging format called Windows Image format or WIM as well as tools that work with it. Unlike previous Windows releases, WIM enables administrators to deploy a single system image for virtually all PCs.

“While we don’t really know quite yet whether the reality will live up to the promises, [WIM] should certainly save IT a lot of time in prepping the images, and [constitute] a substantial savings in time managing multiple images,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group. “Up until now, it’s been very difficult to deploy [new operating systems].”

Vista’s Image Manager tool enables IT managers to compress binaries into one file that’s easy to manipulate -- it’s componentized and can be used offline.

“We can essentially move to one global image per major platform such as x86 or x64,” said Chad Lewis, program manager in charge of Vista deployment in MSIT, in an interview. The same image can be deployed to both tablet and non-tablet PCs as well as both desktops and laptops – thus eliminating custom images, which are complicated to manage.

For Microsoft, that’s a big deal. The company has 340,000 PCs with 121,000 separate user accounts in 98 different countries or regions and a total of 441 buildings. The largest numbers of those are in the US, but the second largest are in Japan. So, as in any global corporation, localization is an important detail.

“WIM allows us to go to two images worldwide – x86 and x64 – with all the localization . . . It makes our versioning control easier and [results in] smaller binaries.”

The same is true with language packs for the new operating system. “[WIM] lets you componentize the language and localize it at install time ‘on the fly’,” Lewis added. That applies to both the default language as well as the user interface language. “You can have English as the default and then inject Japanese into the merge.”

WIM also supports unattended scripting, another important capability for reducing the amount of time IT administrators have to spend per deployment. “It’s not just the raw binaries that need to be compiled and installed – the bulk of the install time is the copy time from the server.”

Microsoft has also done a few more things to make Vista deployment easier for enterprises. For instance, a new Windows Deployment Services updates and replaces Windows Server 2003’s Remote Installation Services. Coming in Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), WDS provides a pre-boot execution environment (PXE – pronounced “pixie”) for remote PCs.

Basically, WDS updates RIS to enable remote deployment of Vista -- in fact, WDS is required for Vista deployment. One of the enhancements Lewis noted is a full graphical user interface mode. It provides native support for Windows Imaging format. It also includes a snap-in for the Microsoft Management Console.

“WDS will [automatically] install users’ credentials into the correct domain [which is] a big jump ahead of RIS,” Lewis said. Windows Server 2003 SP2 began “privately” beta testing in July. (See “Microsoft Reveals Additions to Windows Server 2003 SP2,” August 3, 2006.) It is slated for release later this year.

For new PCs that are being brought in to replace aging computers, MSIT is using capabilities in Vista itself to migrate users’ applications and settings to the new machines. Windows Easy Transfer is a wizard-based tool for migrating individual users’ files and settings – a simpler to use tool than the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard that it replaces.

“It’s seamless and the user doesn’t have to do anything [and] they end up with a new OS,” Lewis said. Microsoft also has the enterprise-oriented User State Migration Tool (USMT) in work. Version 3, which is currently in beta test, was designed for migrating users’ settings from Windows XP or Windows 2000 to Vista on an enterprise basis.

Among its features, USMT saves users’ state data to a server and restores it to the desktop after installation and also upgrades users state data and applications in place.

“[WIM and WDS] should reduce the need for special tools for deployment . . . Though we don’t have any data yet, they may be good enough to deploy Vista without third-party tools,” Enderle added.

Microsoft has posted a whitepaper discussing MSIT’s Vista deployment here.

This is the first of two articles examining Windows Vista deployment. The second article will appear on Sept. 25.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.