Back in the olden days (about 4 operating systems ago!) installation alternatives were more or less limited to those of the manual kind – an endless series of clicks on a “Next” button along with many wasted hours fighting with IRQs, device drivers, and the like. The advent of more intelligent Windows versions has helped to cut down on the number of configuration issues associated with an installation. However, most users still reach for the CD and prepare for at least another boring hour of answering simple questions when an operating system installation is required. Thankfully, Windows XP includes a number of “hidden” utilities that can help you to avoid this monotonous undertaking both at home and in corporate environments.
While a traditional question-and-answer CD-based installation may be the simplest option for new users, Windows XP provides a set of deployment tools that allow more seasoned Windows users to automate the installation process. For example, Windows XP includes a wizard-based tool called Setup Manager than allows you to pre-create a simple text file that answers all of the questions asked during the installation process. This makes Setup Manager an invaluable tool for both home users and those who want to install Windows XP Home or Professional on a large number of machines with the least administrative effort possible. Another valuable deployment utility comes in the form the Sysprep tool. This application is aimed mainly at administrators in domain environments who want to deploy Windows XP Professional using imaging tools like Symantec Ghost. Sysprep automatically removes all of the “unique” configuration information about a machine such as its computer name and security identifiers prior to imaging. This eliminates the need to use utilities such as Ghost Walker after deploying an image to erase and reconfigure unique computer settings.
The Windows XP deployment tools can be found buried away on the Windows XP Home or Professional CD in a directory called \Support\Tools. A single file called DEPLOY.CAB includes both the Setup Manager and Sysprep utilities, as well as a variety of other tools aimed at OEM computer resellers. Most importantly, this file also includes extensive documentation on the use of these utilities in the form of Help files. In order to get started, extract the contents of the DEPLOY.CAB file to a unique directory on your hard drive. It’s not worth picking and choosing between the files to extract since multiple files are needed in some cases, such as with Sysprep.
We’ll start with a look at Setup Manager since the benefits that it provides are applicable to any Windows XP user. Given that the purpose of the program is to help automate the installation of Windows XP, you obviously don’t need to be running Windows XP to use it. Simply click on the file Setupmgr.exe to start the wizard and begin the process. A summary of the steps involved in running Setup Manager is covered at the end up this article.
The Setup Manager tool prompts you to provide answers to all of the questions normally asked during the installation process, including information such as the computer name, administrator password, networking settings, and more. Ultimately, all of these settings are stored in a text file called unattend.txt, as shown below. Setup Manager also creates a helpful batch file called unattend.bat. This file should be used to launch the installation process, as it will use the unattend.txt answer file that was created by the wizard. Once launched, the installation process proceeds onscreen as normal, although when the Fully automated option is chosen, the user is not prompted for input.
Beyond simply creating new answer files, Setup Manager also provides a few additional capabilities. The first is the ability to load and edit existing answer files using the wizard interface. Although these text files can be modified manually in a text editor like Notepad, their somewhat tricky syntax makes this best avoided. Secondly, Setup Manager can also be used to create a file called sysprep.inf that is capable of automating the mini-setup wizard that appears after using the Sysprep utility.
In recent years, disk imaging utilities like Symantec Ghost and Powerquest DriveImage have become the defacto standard tools for deploying operating systems in corporate environments. Although tools like Ghost are also popular amongst home users, businesses have the most to gain from these applications, based on the large number of PCs they typically deploy.
While disk imaging certainly has advantages in terms of speed and efficiency, this method of deployment is also prone to certain shortcomings. First and foremost, since imaging utilities create a binary copy of all data stored of the hard disk of the system on which the image was created, identical hardware is generally required on the systems to which the image will be deployed. Secondly, since the deployed image is going to be an exact copy of the source machine, settings that cannot be same, such as computer names and TCP/IP settings, must be changed on each individual system that the image is installed on. While this is a rather simple affair on Windows 9X operating systems, the challenge is greater on systems running Windows 2000 or XP. These OSes suffer from a third issue, namely the fact that all Windows 2000 or XP systems use a security identifier (SID) that unique identifies them to other network machines and the domain if one exists. As such, the SID of all Windows 2000 or XP systems has to be changed either after the image is deployed using a utility like Ghost Walker, or in advance using a utility like Sysprep.
The Sysprep deployment tool is likely to be of most use to network administrators in corporate environments deploying Windows XP Professional. While the utility is easy to use, a number of caveats exist in terms of using it properly. Firstly, Sysprep is meant to be used after you have installed and configured Windows XP and associated applications, but before an image is created using your favorite disk imaging utility. Sysprep’s job is to erase all of the unique identifiers on a computer, such as its computer name, serial number, and SID information. Once the utility has completed these steps, it is ready for imaging. After the image is created and deployed as usual, you will be presented with what Microsoft calls a mini-setup wizard during the initial boot process. Essentially, this allows you to input the system’s unique information, such a new computer name, administrator information, and serial number. For those looking for a shortcut here, the Setup Manager tool can be used to create a mini answer file (Sysprep.inf) that automates this process as well, allowing the information it contains to be read from a floppy disk.
To properly run Sysprep, copy both the sysprep.exe and setupcl.exe files extracted from DEPLOY.CAB to a new directory called Sysprep on your C drive. Once your operating system is ready to be imaged, run the Sysprep.exe file and check the PnP, MiniSetup and Pre-activated checkboxes, as shown.
Another fringe benefit to using Sysprep prior to imaging is that it is capable of automatically detecting minor hardware differences between machines when the PnP box is checked. This is especially useful when using hardware that is not quite identical, such as when a vendor uses different network or video cards in otherwise identical systems. To complete the Sysprep process, just click the Reseal button. This will shut down the PC, allowing you to image it using a utility such as Ghost. Once the image is deployed to another PC, just complete the mini-setup wizard when it appears onscreen (or automate it using a Sysprep.inf files), and you’re ready to go!
Automating Installations Using Setup Manager
Step 1: Browse to the \Support\Tools directory on the Windows XP CD. Right-click on the DEPLOY.CAB to extract it to a new directory called Deployment Tools using a utility like WinZip.
Step 2: From the Deployment Tools directory, double-click on Setupmgr.exe to start the Setup Manager Wizard, and then click Next. Choose to Create a new answer file. Click Next.
Step 3: Select the Windows Unattended Installation radio button and click Next. When prompted for the operating system version, select either Windows XP Home or Professional. Click Next.
Step 4: Select the Fully automated radio button as shown above and click Next. Select whether the installation will occur from the CD or another source, and again click Next. Accept the Licensing Agreement, and then click Next.
Step 5: The Windows Setup Manager screen shown above allows you to configure settings specific to your installation. Provide all necessary information, and ultimately click Finish. This will create both the unattend.txt and unattend.bat files in the directory you specify.
Step 6. Browse to the directory specified in Step 5 and then run the unattend.bat file to begin the installation, ensuring that the Windows XP source files are in the directory you specified during the Setup Manager wizard.