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System recovery options for Microsoft Windows Vista

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In this excerpt from Chapter 8 of Tricks of the Microsoft Windows Vista Masters, author J. Peter Bruzzese tells administrators about tools and tactics they can use if their Windows Vista system will not boot.

The last thing you want to happen is for your system to not boot. Performance is a great thing to worry about right up to the day your system shows you a black screen with an error message instead of the colorful login screen. With a lump in your throat, you sigh with relief because you know you have a CompletePC backup…or do you? Before you go for the backup, you should try to fix your problem. Start with Advanced Boot Options.

Advanced Boot Options in Vista

By pressing F8 upon bootup, you can see the Advanced Boot Options available to help you to handle a particular crisis. Knowing how each works can enable you to make an informed decision about which tool is going to get your system up and running the fastest. Here are your choices:

  • Safe Mode: Loads a minimal driver set and set of services.
  • Safe Mode with Networking: This loads safe mode settings but also loads network connections, allows logon scripts to run, allows security settings and Group Policy settings (for system that connect to a domain) to be applied. If you know it's not a network problem that is preventing your system from booting, this mode can be helpful to allow you access to other resources (and to back up your system if you haven't done so already).
  • Safe Mode with Command Prompt: Boots up your system but with a command prompt instead of the GUI. Why would you use this? Well, if you believe the system will not start due to a problem regarding a process started through the Explorer shell, this prevents the Explorer shell from executing in the first place.
  • Enable Boot Logging: Creates a log file that lists all the services and drivers that load (or do not load, as the case may be). This log file is called Ntbtlog.txt and is located in the Windows folder. The modes listed previously also create boot logs, but this one does it without going into a safe mode.
  • Enable Low-resolution Video (640480): This used to be called VGA mode in XP. Useful for problems you encounter with video drivers or incorrect video display settings, it provides a standard (ugly), stable (low-resolution and refresh rates settings), VGA driver to allow you to see your screen so you can fix your problem.
  • Last Known Good Configuration (Advanced): The last time you logged on successfully, your Registry took a snapshot and saved it. In the event you did something to your system and it prevents you from logging in again, not to worry—just use the last known good to go back in time to your last logon. However, if you are able to log in after a poor installation of a driver or service, this option will not help you in the least. So, if you know something isn't right, don't log in first and then see whether you are right.
  • Instead, go with your gut feeling and last known good. It doesn't solve problems caused by corrupted or missing drivers or files—that requires WinRE, which is discussed later.

  • Directory Services Restore Mode: This setting applies only to domain controllers, so you don't need this for your desktop OS.
  • Debugging Mode: This enables Vista to send debugging information through a serial cable to another computer for troubleshooting the kernel and other analysis of the system.
  • Disable Automatic Restart on System Failure:This is useful for when your system is in a loop of restarting because it stops the blue-screen restart loop so you can troubleshoot the cause of the problem.
  • Disable Driver Signature Enforcement: Allows drivers with improper signatures to be installed. This setting does not continue with multiple reboots. You use it; you install the driver you need; and when you reboot, the Driver Signature Enforcement is enabled again.
  • Start Windows Normally: Starts the system normally, as you might have guessed.
  • Nick Peers, the freelance journalist says:

    "A damaged Registry can lock you out of your system and important files. The Registry is a massive database that contains all your system and program configuration and is central to the way Windows works. If it becomes damaged (or corrupt) in any way, you may find yourself unable to boot into your system. The simplest thing to try is Last Known Good Configuration. This replaces the Registry with the version that was used the last time Windows successfully loaded. In most cases this will fix the boot problem, although you'll find any changes made to the Registry since that copy was made are lost."

    Nick is correct, but if you really find yourself in trouble, your next step is the Windows Recovery options.

    The Windows Recovery Environment

    More on Windows Vista

    Learn more tricks of Microsoft Windows Vista Masters --download chapter 8 in its entirety.

    Visit our Microsoft Windows Vista topical resource center.
    For those of you familiar with the Recovery Console in XP, it has been replaced by the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE). WinRE is a recovery platform based off the Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE), the core deployment foundation for Vista. WinRE has two primary functions, that of diagnosing problems using the Startup Repair tool (discussed earlier in this chapter) and providing a platform for advanced recovery tools, according to the WinRE team. You can read their postings for some great information. Using the WinRE is easy enough. You boot up your Vista installation disk (or ISO). You will be asked to select a language, time, and so forth. When you see the button labeled Install, you can look to the bottom-left corner for the option to Repair Your Computer.

    This takes you into the System Recovery Options (that we mentioned earlier for memory diagnostics and Startup Repair).

    Windows PE 2.0

    The Windows Pre-installation Environment (WinPE 2.0) is a tool that enables you to boot the PE operating system, which is a mini-OS that allows you to handle installation, diagnostic troubleshooting, and recovery solutions for Vista. Some say WinPE is super-DOS. It's not DOS; it's more like Son-of-DOS, so call it SOD if you like. When you load the WinRE options of the Vista DVD, it is actually running WinPE as the underlying OS. The same is true when you start the installation from the DVD. But you can actually make your own boot CDs or boot from a USB flash drive.

    To begin, you should download the Windows Automated Installation Kit (Windows AIK) from Microsoft. Be sure you obtain the one from the final Vista release (in the event you are downloading or borrowing the kit from another source). The Windows AIK includes tools you need for deployment, as well as ones for creating the boot environment for WinRE. One of the most important tools you will need is imagex.exe, a command-line tool used for capturing, modifying, and applying installation images.There is quite a bit of documentation to go through to fully understand the new deployment and troubleshooting tools, but it is worth it to keep your system humming along. But to understand the following discussions, you need to at least understand the basics.

    The Basic Tools of WinPE

    After you install the Windows AIK, the tools you need will be in those folders. If you don't want to remember all the paths, you can make a quick edit in your system's environment variables to include the paths. To do this, open your System properties, select the Advanced tab, and click the Environment Variables button. For the system variables you want to add to the path variables, be sure to include the paths you need. For the following examples, you add the following two paths:

    C:Program FilesWindows AIKToolsPETools
    C:Program FilesWindows AIKToolsx86

    Some of the tools mentioned include the following:

  • CopyPE: Run the copype.cmd script to automatically create a local Windows PE build directory. The script is located in the PETools folder. The script requires two arguments: hardware architecture and target location:
    copype.cmd <arch> <destination>
    Where <arch> can be x86, amd64, or ia64 and <destination> is a path to a local directory. For example:
    copype.cmd x86 c:winpe_x86

    (Don't create the folder ahead of time because the tool creates the folder for you.) The script creates the following directory structure and copies all the necessary files for that architecture:

    winpe_x86
    winpe_x86ISO
    winpe_x86mount

  • imagex: This tool is the mega-tool. It is "the" tool for creating and reconfiguring, as well as applying, .wim files. Some have compared this tool to an advanced .zip-ping tool, and it is in some ways. You can take files, or your entire system, and pull it into one .wim file. You can also compress that file. It looks at the .wim file as a directory so you can add to it any parts that are missing. One example of the capabilities of imagex can be seen just by looking at the install.wim for Vista. For starters, it's a 2GB+ file that expands out to be about 8GB. That speaks volumes for imagex's capabilities. OEMs can use this to open their Vista images, input their own Welcome Center information and other restore features, and close them again.
  • PEImg: After you use imagex to expand a Windows PE structure, you can use PEImg to make changes to Windows PE, such as installing packages, drivers, and language packs.
  • OsCDimg: Lets you take your .wim files and make them ISO files. After they're in ISO format they can be burned onto a CD to make them bootable.

  • Diskpart This is a command-line tool for disk management. You use this tool in preparing your keychain drive for it to be a bootable tool later.
  • Printed with permission from Que Publishing.

    This was first published in July 2007

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