Customizing Windows Vista Deployments

In last week's Windows IT Pro UPDATE, I discussed Microsoft's newly released Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) for Windows Vista Beta 1, which lets administrators and IT pros work with the company's new image-based setup and deployment tools. This week, I look at some of the ways in which you can customize installation images for Vista Beta 1.

Setup Manager As with earlier Windows versions, you can use WAIK's Setup Manager to customize some aspects of a Vista installation. Although the WAIK version of Setup Manager creates XML files, the customization features haven't really changed much over earlier versions. In short, you can use Setup Manager to customize the End User License Agreement (EULA) acceptance, user name and organization, computer name, product key, various disk configuration options (including where to install Vista), and the standard "Run Once" list of commands that will run after the installation. If you've performed any type of automated installation of Windows in the past, these options should be familiar to you.

Customizing Live Images The most exciting new deployment change with Vista, potentially, is that you can edit in place the Windows Image (WIM) installation files you've created, then save the changes to the existing image or as a new image.

Here's how the functionality works. The base Vista Beta 1 installation image is called install.wim and is located in the /sources/ directory of the Vista Beta 1 DVD by default. The other WIM file located in that directory, boot.wim, is the Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE), which you use to boot the DVD and load the Vista Beta 1 installation image onto your PC's hard disk; WinPE runs in RAM off the DVD.

To edit install.wim, copy it to the hard disk of a system on which you've installed WAIK. Then, use a command line window to navigate to the folder in which the WAIK tool ximage.exe is found. (There are separate versions for 32-bit x86 and 64-bit x64 versions of Windows Vista.) The first time you navigate to this folder, you need to install the WIM File System Filter (WIM FS Filter) driver. This tool lets you navigate through the file system of a mounted Vista installation image in Windows Explorer as if it where already installed on the PC. To install the driver, open Windows Explorer, locate the file called wimfltr.inf (which is in the same folder as ximage.exe), right-click it, and select Install.

Now you're ready to mount a Vista installation image so that you can view and customize it in Windows Explorer. You use Ximage's mount (view only) and mountwr (read/write) commands to accomplish this. If your install.wim file is stored in C:\images and you want to mount the image in C:\mount, you'd use the following command:

ximage /mountwr c:\mount c:\images\install.wim 1

Now, you can customize the image, in place, by simply navigating through its file structure in Windows Explorer. If you open a My Computer window and navigate to C:\mount, you'll see the standard Vista Beta 1 installation folder structure spread out before you, with the following folders present in the root:

Documents and Settings
Program Files

Note that the bizarre combination of mixed case and multiple words in a single folder name will likely change by the final release of Vista; Microsoft is working to ensure that most system folders use simple names (e.g., Users) instead of the complex names of the past, such as "Documents and Settings."

If you want to add files or even entire directory structures to the resulting Windows installation, simply add them wherever appropriate within the mounted image. (I've had mixed results doing this: Often, dragging files over in Windows Explorer doesn't work, but copy-and-paste operations seem to work more consistently.) You can also view the contents of files within the image and edit individual files where needed.

When you finish making changes to the image, unmount the image--which removes it from the namespace of the Windows shell on your PC--and save your changes (if any). To unmount the image without saving any changes, simply type the following command:

ximage /unmount c:\mount

Typically, you'll want to save the changes, however, so you'll need to add the commit command to the previous command-line sequence. If you use the following command sequence, ximage will write the changes back to the original file (Note that this process could take a while because the install.wim file is larger than 820MB by default):

ximage /unmount /commit c:\mount

Before you edit an image, you should make a copy of it and edit the copy. This, after all, is one of the biggest benefits of image-based deployment tools. Because the images are single files, they're easy to manipulate in the file system.

Well, I'm out of space once again, but I hope this basic tutorial has whetted your appetite for the deployment changes in Vista. I hope to speak to Microsoft soon about how these tools will evolve over subsequent betas--the command line stuff works fine but is needlessly arcane in my mind--and I'll report back soon about that. If you have any questions about Vista deployment, please drop me a note.

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