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Grooming Windows images for deployment

When it comes to getting OS images ready to deploy in a Windows infrastructure, there are tools to use to get them ready.

The relentless march of Windows versions starting with NT 4.0 up through the present day -- Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2 in production, Windows 10 and Server 2016 in preview mode -- has seen a successive series of improvements in OS imaging capabilities.

The Windows Vista-to-current version time series is the most impressive, including the introduction of virtual hard disk and Windows image format (.wim) file layouts, either or both of which can capture OS disk images. And in fact, it's also possible to build, manage and maintain OS images using those formats as well. Savvy IT professionals who manage Windows installations and images will get to know them well, and the tools for working with them. As is so often the case, there are tools from Microsoft for this purpose, as well as a slew of third-party solutions.

Microsoft image tools: DISM and much, much more

Microsoft's Deployment Image Servicing and Management tool (DISM) is the primary go-to for Windows 7 and newer versions of Windows.

DISM works with .wim files to enable users to capture and apply Windows images from/to PCs, to append and delete images inside such files and to split large .wim files -- which can be 50 GB or larger -- into multiple, smaller constituent files. DISM also works with .wim, .vhd, and .vhdx files to permit admins to add, remove or enumerate packages or drivers, which can extend and build upon basic OS install images to customize drivers, add applications and services and so forth. It may also be used to enable or disable Windows features, apply answer file-based customizations, configure international settings, upgrade images to different Windows editions and a whole lot more. It's worth getting to know this tool, and learning how to use it, especially for SMB class IT operations where more advanced tools may not be available.

Organizations that subscribe to Microsoft Software Assurance can -- and probably still will -- use DISM, but they will also turn to the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), too. MDOP supports a variety of virtualization tools that extend DISM and desktop management capabilities, and provide enhanced remote diagnostics and repair capabilities. In particular, Microsoft Application Virtualization and Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization are likely to be of great interest and value. Check out the MDOP homepage on TechNet for pointers on all the details and related technical references.

Beyond these tools, the System Center Configuration Manager also offers operating system deployment and related image management capabilities for OS and application deployment, with general update/upgrade capabilities. Check out the Configuration Manager page in TechNet's System Center documentation for more information and pointers on usage details.

Third-party offerings: virt-focused items from VMware, IBM, Unidesk and more

Because so much of creating and managing images for virtualization overlaps completely with creation and maintenance of desktop images, there's a huge overlap between the Microsoft tool set and third-party offerings tailored for specific virtualization environments. These include tools and facilities such as VMware Horizon, IBM's Image Construction and Composition Tool -- which runs on the VMware ESX or ESXi hypervisor -- or Unidesk for Hyper-V, all of which offer detailed capabilities to capture, maintain and deploy Windows OS images at low levels of granularity. In general, such tools usually play into some kind of virtualized desktop infrastructure investment, so you'll find them when you need them as you venture into such precincts. You'll also find similar capabilities for other popular virtualization environments, including Citrix XenServer, Oracle VM/VirtualBox, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization and so forth. Again, if you need them, you'll usually be able to find and use them fairly easily.

The bottom line: manage images, not individual systems

Unless every machine in the work environment is a one of a kind, there's bound to be some standardization on hardware platforms. This establishes the case for creating a library of images, based either on hardware or job role (usually both, in my experience, since software developers usually use vastly different PCs from data entry staff, help desk employees or accounting personnel). By creating and managing images for standard deployment situations, you can greatly simplify the effort involved in providing users with production desktop access. The more you learn about the tools involved, the easier your job will be. That's why following the pointers in this story could be a big boon.

Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in IT Certification, Windows operating systems, information security, and markup languages, who also occasionally works as a consultant and expert witness. He blogs three times a week for TechTarget at Windows Enterprise Desktop, and also blogs weekly for PearsonITCertification.com (IT Certification Success), Tom's IT Pro and GoCertify.

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