Deploying Vista – Part 1: Understanding the Windows AIK

If you would like to read the following parts in this article series please go to:

The IT lifecycle for a typical enterprise involves the following phases: plan, test, deploy, configure, maintain and troubleshoot. These phases are the same regardless of whether you’re implementing applications, suites of applications, operating systems, or whole solutions. An important part of this lifecycle is the deployment phase, which can involve anything from popping a DVD into a single box to install something, to automating the deployment of an application or operating system to thousands of desktops at multiple sites.

In the past, deploying Microsoft Windows to large numbers of computers has usually meant one of three things: cobbling together an automated deployment solution using MS-DOS network boot floppies, unattend.txt files, cmdlines.txt files, and various .ini and .inf files; using Remote Installation Services (RIS), a server-based deployment solution first introduced in Windows 2000 Server; or buying a third-party disk imaging or “cloning” tool like Norton Ghost and using this instead. Of course, if you were a Microsoft Software Assurance (SA) volume license customer, or an OEM, then starting with Windows XP you also had access to another tool, the Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE), which basically meant you could throw out your MS-DOS boot disks. Anyway, most time- and budget-conscious admins chose the third approach (cloning) especially if they had more than a few dozen machines to install, and while some very large enterprises deployed RIS, most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) preferred third-party disk-imaging solutions like Ghost. In fact, the word “ghosting” became synonymous with “deploying” for many Windows administrators.

With the arrival of Windows Vista however, the landscape has changed as Vista now has a number of tools for preparing, capturing and servicing disk images and then deploying them in unattended fashion to bare-metal systems. Some of these deployment tools (like Sysprep.exe) are included in the operating system itself; others are available from the Microsoft Download Center as a free download; still others like Windows Deployment Services (Windows DS), the successor to RIS, are provided as a role you can add to Windows Server 2008. In addition to such tools, Microsoft has also developed a Solution Accelerator (SA)—a collection of tools, scripts and documentation—for taking some of the complexity out of deploying Windows. The first version of this was called the Solution Accelerator for Business Desktop Deployment 2007, or BDD 2007 for short.

A new version of BDD 2007 called Microsoft Deployment has also just been released, and while it’s tempting to jump right into using Microsoft Deployment and learn how to use it, a wiser approach is to first become familiar with the Windows AIK and Windows DS. The reason for this is simple—Microsoft Deployment is built on top of the Windows AIK and other important tools like the User State Migration Tool and Application Compatibility Toolkit. Knowing how these underlying tools work in detail will help you get significantly more out of using Microsoft Deployment—especially when you have to troubleshoot some deployment issue. Hence this series of articles, which will take you through a detailed walkthrough of using the various tools included in the Windows AIK and also various ways of performing image-based deployment of Windows. Then once a good foundation of understanding the Windows AIK has been laid, I’ll move on and examine how Microsoft Deployment can simplify and streamline your deployment tasks.

While the focus of these articles will be on deploying Vista, much of the content will be helpful for deploying Windows Server 2008 as well, and to facilitate this the articles will focus on version 1.1 of the Windows AIK, which will be released with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and Windows Server 2008. Note also that deploying pre-Vista versions of Windows will not be covered in these articles.

What’s In the Windows AIK

The Windows AIK consists of tools, documentation and samples to enable administrators to perform automated deployment of the Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 family of operating system platforms. Windows AIK 1.1 can be used to deploy Windows Vista RTM, Windows Vista with SP1, and Windows Server 2008. To use the Windows AIK, you first have to obtain it. Version 1.0 is available from the Microsoft Download Center; at the time of writing, version 1.1 is still under development and can be obtained from Microsoft Connect if you’re on the Windows Server 2008 beta program.

To use Windows AIK, you first install it on a technician computer, which is simply the computer you will use to create answer files, build configuration sets, build custom Windows PE images, and so on. Your technician computer doesn’t have to be running Windows Vista or Windows Server 2008—you can use a Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 machine instead if you want. Your technician computer does need to have the .NET Framework 2.0 and MSXML 6.0 installed on it however, but you can install these directly from the Windows AIK splash screen before you install the Windows AIK itself (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Splash screen for installing the Windows AIK

If you plan on building custom Windows PE images, then your technician computer should also have a DVD burner and third-party image-burning software on it.

After you install the Windows AIK on your technician computer, you’ll have access to the following tools:

  • Windows System Image Manager (Windows SIM), which can be used to create XML answer files and distribution shares.
  • ImageX, a command-line tool for capturing, servicing, and applying Windows Imaging Format (WIM) files, which are file-based Windows disk images used by Windows Vista and later.
  • PEimg.exe, a command-line tool for creating and modifying Windows PE 2.1 images offline.
  • Package Manager (Pkgmgr.exe), a command-line tool for offline servicing of Windows images.
  • Other command-line tools including BCDEdit, Bootsect, DiskPart, Drvload, and others that can be used to automate various aspects of deployment.

In addition, Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 also includes Sysprep.exe, the System Preparation Tool, which is used to prepare a computer for disk imaging by removing machine-specific information such as SIDs, and also for other purposes such as adding device drivers to an existing Windows installation using Audit mode.

When the Windows AIK is installed on a technician computer, it creates a folder structure similar to the one shown in Figure 2 below. After you’ve installed the Windows AIK it’s worthwhile exploring the contents of these folders as there is much helpful documentation and also sample files of various kinds that illustrate how these different tools can be used to deploy Windows.

Figure 2: Folder structure found under %PROGRAMFILES%\Windows AIK

Quick Guide To Changes in Deployment Tools and Technologies in Vista

In future articles of this series, we’re going to dive deep into how to use each of these tools, but before we start doing this let me leave you with something that will kick start your learning concerning how deployment tools and technologies have changed in Vista. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the standard Microsoft tools and technologies used to deploy Windows XP, right? Well, if so, here’s a quick guide to how these things have changed in Windows Vista and beyond:

Tool or Technology

Old (pre-Vista)

New (Vista and Beyond)


Found in on your product CD

Found in %WINDIR%\System32\Sysprep folder

Disk imaging tool

None (use Ghost or some other third-party product)

ImageX (included in Windows AIK)

Tool for creating answer files

Setup Manager (found in

Windows SIM (included in Windows AIK)

Answer file format

Text file with sections and key=value parameters

XML file

Number of different answer files

Lots e.g. unattend.txt, winnt.sif, sysprep.inf, winborn.ini, oobeinfo.ini and so on.

Only two: unattend.xml and (optionally) oobe.xml.

How to run additional commands during installation

List them in cmdlines.txt and use $OEM$ folder on your distribution share

Use RunAsynchronous or RunSynchronous in unattend.xml

How to run additional commands after first logon

Use [GuiRunOnce] section of unattend.txt.

Use FirstLogonCommands in unattend.xml

How to provide supplementary files for an installation

Use $OEM$ folders and various subfolders under this

Use ImageX to create a data image

Table 1

There’s lots more of course, but that should be enough get you started, or at least to whet your appetite.

If you would like to read the following parts in this article series please go to:

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