Windows XP Professional has some nice new features, not the least of which is a smooth upgrade process. However, in the business enterprise there is never a substitute for proper planning and testing. Here are some things to consider before moving forward.
Before you actually select a deployment method, you will have to decide what to do about your existing systems. When upgrading to another operating system, it is sometimes better to erase the current system and then perform a clean installation of the new one. But, wiping the old OS before installing the new one will change which options you use; it will also change how much time you will need to put into protecting user data and configurations during the upgrade.
In part, this decision will be based on your current operating system. You can do an in-place upgrade from Windows 98, Windows NT or Windows 2000 Professional. Windows 95 is not eligible, so it requires a complete erase and fresh install. But, other than the lack of Windows 95 support, the XP upgrade process will be the same for any of the Microsoft desktop operating systems. For more information see this Microsoft Web page on upgrading from previous versions of Windows.
Network boot disk
The first deployment method to consider is using a network boot disk in cooperation with shared resources and an unattend.txt file. This method may require a little more creative work on your part, but it is very flexible, can work with either new deployments or upgrades, and is basically free.
The unattend.txt is simply a file that contains all of the choices that are normally made by the user during installation. The Setup Manager is a wizard-style tool that can assist in the development of the unattend.txt. You can get this and all of the other tools for deploying Windows XP at this Microsoft Web site on Windows XP service pack 1 deployment tools. Simply place the unattend.txt on a file share. The user can either run the setup from a logon script or use a boot floppy at their leisure to perform the upgrade.
If you are a sysadmin you know using a logon script or boot floppy means writing some scripts to start the process off. You may be uncomfortable with scripting , but it is a major piece of any administrator's life. Here are a couple of suggestions to help.
Windows NT Shell Scripting by Tim Hill is still a killer book for the command shell, which is what you will most likely need if you use the network boot disk deployment option.
The Win32 Scripting Web site is one of the best online communities I know of for finding and sharing scripts.
The next method uses the Microsoft tool called sysprep.exe. Sysprep.exe has a few constraints. Generally, you will have to use it in conjunction with other deployment or disk duplication software (Ghost, Drive Image Pro, etc.). If you go this route, you are committing yourself to maintaining some large files that represent the various hardware configurations in your environment. This may be suitable for smaller companies, but, it is generally not a good choice for larger enterprises. Sysprep.exe usually takes less programming skill, but costs more in hardware and software.
Remote Installation Service
Remote Installation Service is a good choice if you have Active Directory in place. The RIS service can be set up on a server to deploy your new desktop operating system, however, it does not do upgrades. So, unless you are clearing out user machines, this solution will not help.
Systems Management Suites
Lastly, consider software deployment solutions such as Microsoft's Systems Management Server, IBM's Tivoli and On Technologies' CCM. These will require more of a commitment from your company, as installation of software deployment solutions is a project all by itself. The end result, however, will be a system that allows you to control software and OS deployment in your enterprise.
How do you decide to make the investment? You can figure out the costs relatively quickly. The rule of thumb is the cost of any such software solution (when deployed correctly) will be returned to you on your first couple of deployments to over 250 workstations of any piece of software. Most of these software solutions will require planning, testing, software purchase and hardware purchase.
You will also need to consider how you are going to use the product -- for deployment only, inventory, or management. If you are looking for a product for just software upgrades and management, I would recommend SMS. If you are looking for new installations as well as upgrades, consider the very slick CCM from On Technologies.
About the author: Paul Hinsberg is an author, consultant and technical trainer with over ten years of experience in a wide variety of operating systems. He has helped many companies with large scale Windows deployments. He is also SearchWin2000.com's resident expert for our Active Directory and Migration Ask the Experts category.