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Windows XP Deployment

For consumers and business desktop users alike, Windows XP delivers a compelling upgrade over existing Windows 9x and 2000 clients. To ensure that both types of users experience the easiest possible upgrade or clean installation, Microsoft has made improvements to the deployment features of the operating system. And because Microsoft knows that most users upgrade to Windows by purchasing a new PC, special attention has been given to this area as well. In this showcase, we'll take a look at the Windows XP deployment advances.

What to expect from a Windows XP PC
Microsoft has done a lot of research to determine what people expect when they buy a new PC. The results break this decision into two categories, or levels. In the first level, people tend to decide that they need a PC for the whole family, or they want to replace or expand an existing PC with a newer one. At the second level, people are looking more closely at the entire PC experience. They want a stable machine for work and fun. It should boot up (and shut down) more quickly, and offer self diagnostics when something goes wrong. PCs should be, but generally aren't today, visually appealing.

To answer these needs, Microsoft has proposed what it calls a Windows XP PC. This consists of a mid-level processor (Pentium III 500, or equivalent, or higher), 128 MB of RAM, a Wake On LAN network interface card, USB and IEEE-1394 ("Firewire") ports, and a CD-R or CD-RW. Windows XP PCs should continue the push for a legacy-free design by not using parallel or serial ports. And they should contain a microphone and, optionally, a Web camera. On the software side, all of these devices should interface with the system using signed drivers only. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

David W. Williams, Director of the Windows User Experience team, explained that PC makers need to get over the plain beige box that predominates today. He used Compaq's successful iPAQ machine as an example of a quiet, elegant solution that meets the needs of 99 percent of the people out there, compared to standard desktops, which are more expensive and much louder. Finally, Microsoft seems genuinely interested in taking the PC mainstream.

"Most people do not have emotional experiences with their PC," said Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin. "Contrast that with the Mac where there is a heartfelt attachment. The PC grew up in a work setting. Windows Me was a little start toward changing this. But Windows XP will be a solid foundation for all users."

Windows XP Deployment
Because Windows XP will be installed by such a wide range of users, ranging from technically unsophisticated home users to administrators wishing to automate corporate roll-outs, OS deployment has improved significantly with this release. Microsoft Group Product Manager Tom Yaryan discussed the ways in which Windows XP improves on the installation, serviceability, and deployment capabilities it inherits from Windows 2000. "We wanted to reduce the install times for OEMs," Yaryan said, "while reducing 'setup anxiety' for end users choosing to do a retail upgrade. OS setup is difficult today."

Interactive Setup
For end users, the Setup user experience has been enhanced dramatically. Text is presented in plain English rather than confusing technical jargon. Questions that require user input are batched together so that the user can walk away from the machine and know that Setup will continue without them needing to OK a dialog box later on. The Setup color scheme is now warm and inviting rather than ugly and garish (as it is in Windows 98). Ever-changing, informational "billboards" provide the user with feedback about new features to expect once the OS is installed.

And here's a weird one, given my experience with previous versions of Windows: For the first time, Microsoft is actually pushing upgrades over clean installs for the home user. When a Windows 9x desktop is upgraded to Windows XP, a backup is automatically taken of the old installation so that the user can go back if the Windows XP upgrade fails. And the backup is mandatory: Microsoft says that hard drives today are big enough to handle this and Windows XP will eventually ask the user whether they'd like to delete the backup if they don't use it.

"Users can go back to Windows 9x if they're not satisfied with Windows XP," Yaryan said. "And if Setup fails at any point, the system goes back to old OS. The archive file is about 300 MB, and 1 GB of free space will be required for Setup to even run. This is done for the user's protection: If there's not enough space, Setup will halt right up front." Curiously, there is no uninstall for Windows 2000 upgraders, however. "The uninstall feature was added too late to do it for Windows 2000. We really wanted to protect consumers. But most Windows 2000 upgrades should work fine." Microsoft notes that a CD-based install of Windows XP will take approximately one hour; this is the same amount of time required by Windows 2000 today.

Out Of Box Experience
For users that acquire Windows XP with a new PC, the Out Of Box Experience (OOBE) has been simplified and updated with an engaging new look that's based on the OOBE in Windows Me. A small Microsoft Agent character, "Merlin," guides the user through a few final setup screens so that the machine can be up and running as quickly as possible. Like the interactive Setup program, OOBE has undergone simplifications, and the visual design has been tweaked to the new Windows XP style and color scheme. If the user has plugged in a broadband Internet device, it will be detected and enabled during OOBE so that the product can be registered over the Internet immediately. And user accounts and home networking are all configured before the desktop is first displayed.

Dynamic Update
One compelling new Setup feature is Dynamic Update, which allows the OS to update itself with new drivers, fixes, or other code updates before Setup starts. This allows Microsoft to keep Windows XP updated, even after the final release ships. In the past, a Windows retail box represented a set of code that was frozen at a particular point in time. But Dynamic Update means that Windows XP will remain up-to-date even years later and not require manual visits to Windows Update as soon as the OS is installed.

Dynamic Update is used to deliver updated and new drivers, improvements to the application compatibility database, Setup fixes, critical fixes, and security fixes. But Dynamic Update doesn't mindlessly download all updated drivers: If Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS) determines that an in-box driver requires a critical fix, it will be supplied via Dynamic Update. Meanwhile, the Application Compatibility Database provides a list of Windows applications and associated issues with running under Windows XP. By supplying Setup with an updated list of fixed application compatibility issues, Setup will be able to generate an accurate upgrade report for the user. Setup/critical/security fixes consist of any OS files that need to be replaced.

After Dynamic Update runs and updates Setup, a built-in Compatibility Checker executes and scans the system and program files (if performing an upgrade), comparing those results against a list of known/potential problems. Issues will be presented to the user, so that it's clear when device drivers are unavailable, applications might not work as expected, or applications need to be reinstalled.

"And Dynamic Update-style fixes can be applied administratively to network installs," Yaryan said, "enabling corporations to slipstream these updates into Windows XP setup using Corporate Update." Speaking of corporate users, Windows XP includes a wider range of preinstall advances over Windows 2000. With Windows 2000, install images often become out-of-date, and there's no easy way to slipstream hot-fixes, new drivers, and value-added applications into an OS install image. Automatically customizing an OS install with customer information is difficult. And the documentation for making this happen is nonexistent or hard to find.

Automating Windows XP Roll-outs in the Enterprise
Needless to say, this all changes with Windows XP. Sysprep has been improved with the ability to add updated or "out of box" drivers to an install image. Per-machine customizations can be applied. And a number of features have been added to decrease the amount of time PC makers will need to get the OS preloaded on corporate machines. A new Windows Bill Of Materials file (WinBOM.ini) drives Sysprep, providing a scriptable OS customization environment. The WinBOM.ini file is used to apply per-machine settings like identity information, machine name, and ISP information.

Remote Installation Services (RIS) has been upgraded as well, based on customer feedback. RIS can now wipe a machine clean and reinstall an OS from scratch; it can also be used to repair an existing install, providing basic disaster recovery capabilities that even non-technical staff can use. RIS now supports Server installs as well: This exclusion in Windows 2000 was apparently a huge deployment blocker for many companies, according to Microsoft. RIS users can now choose between a selection of available OS images, based on hardware dependencies and other needs. The new RIS has also been enhanced with increased security and stability, and compatibility with Windows 2000 installation.

Unattended installations are similarly improved in Windows XP. There are more configuration options for such technologies as power management settings, PC Health, and the like. The timed wait period between reboots during Setup has been eliminated, reducing the amount of time required by an unattended install. And server configuration has been improved.

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