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The future is WinPE

WinPE is a new solution from Microsoft will eliminate the need to use DOS for automation and other system maintenance.

Since Microsoft released the first real version of Windows (3.0 in my mind and not the 1.0 version some of you may remember) way back when, each operating system upgrade has been complemented with new deployment methodologies and tools. Over time, these methodologies and tools have improved in parallel with the OS in response to ever-increasing demands on IT administrators to automate the OS installation and configuration process.

Soon those tools will be a distant memory, replaced by a new solution from Microsoft that will eliminate the need to use DOS for automation and other system maintenance. It's called WinPE or Windows Preinstallation Environment, and it is a minimal version of Windows XP that is available only to customers with an Enterprise Select Agreement or system makers (OEMs). With WinPE, you can replace your disaster recovery tool set that runs from DOS bootable diskettes, boot from a CD and take advantage of common XP features to perform routine system maintenance and recovery. Also with WinPE, you can develop an automated deployment solution for desktops and servers.

A history lesson
Microsoft provided the first deployment and configuration solution for Windows (NT 4.0 and Windows 95) back in 1997, it was called "Zero Administration Kit" or ZAK. ZAK included a set of methodologies that leveraged tools found in the Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95 Resource Kit that allowed you to set security policies and configuration settings. It also offered recommendations for automating the deployment of the OS en-masse.

During this time, the term "total cost of ownership (TCO)" was becoming a big thing. To complement ZAK, Microsoft also released a lengthy document for Windows NT 4.0 called the "Windows NT Workstation Deployment Guide." This guide helped admins deploy Windows NT in an unattended manner, using scripts instead of imaging tools like Ghost.

Since then, the tools, documents and features provided in the OS have matured to meet the demands of corporate IT. We saw this with the release of Windows 2000, where you have Remote Installation Service (RIS), Group Policies and IntelliMirror. These are great solutions, but one thing is still lurking in the shadows –- IT is still using DOS as part of a deployment automation solution for the desktop or server.

Let's look at a typical setup routine for the Windows OS. It starts with DOS (referred to as Textmode setup) and then you boot into the minimally functional OS (referred to as GUImode setup) to complete the configuration and installation.

You also have IT admins who have developed automation solutions by using a DOS bootable disk with batch scripts and answer files for FDISK and FORMAT, or by obtaining and configuring the NDIS drivers for NIC cards, and developing the logic to automate the install of the OS on a workstation -- a painful but effective solution. File-based installations are very time-consuming, which is why IT leans toward the imaging solutions such as Ghost.

New options with WinPE
The functionality provided with WinPE includes:

  1. Support for all mass-storage and networking devices supported by Windows XP.
  2. Ability to create and format disk partitions using DISKPART utility.
  3. Access to network shares on the network and up to four network connections.
  4. A subset of the Win32 API that lets you perform common tasks as you would under Windows XP. This does not include WMI scripting and some other functions, but it does support Windows Script Host for using VBScripts in automating your routines, or running batch scripts from a command-line interface (CMD.EXE).
  5. Support for x86 and IA64.

One important item that is not available with Microsoft WinPE is the shell (Explorer.exe), so most functions are performed via the command-line interface.

For IT shops that are not under an Enterprise Select Agreement, there is a non-Microsoft version of this software available called BartPE. You can find it at: http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/. BartPE is a rescue platform that supports everything that WinPE does, plus offers:

  1. A start-menu that you can customize.
  2. Plug-ins that let you add applications using a proprietary pluggable solution.
  3. Licensing for everyone.
  4. DOS support using a DOS plug-in.

WinPE and BartPE are two products I strongly recommend. They will help you to componentize and customize the installation processes not found or available with the base Windows 2000/XP/2003 platforms. Note: Current versions of Ghost and PowerQuest v2i support creating and deploying images through WinPE.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matt Goedtel is president and lead engineer for IT Centric, Inc., a consulting firm based in Stewartsville, NJ, geared towards providing solutions for Microsoft BackOffice and .NET technologies. He has been in the industry for over 10 years, providing architecture and integration solutions for many financial, retail and services firms.


This article first appeared in myITforum, the premier online destination for IT professionals responsible for managing their corporations' Microsoft Windows systems. The centerpiece of myITforum.com is a collection of member forums where IT professionals actively exchange technical tips, share their expertise, and download utilities that help them better manage their Windows environments, specifically Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS). It is part of the TechTarget network of Web sites. To register for the site and sign up for the myITforum daily newsletter, click here.

This was first published in July 2004

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