Script the Installation with Answer Files

Take the guesswork out of users' hands by automating the Windows 2000 setup process with a crib sheet -- otherwise known as an answer file.

 By Jerry Honeycutt
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Answer files are like high-school chemistry crib sheets. They're lists of answers for questions that you know the setup program is going to ask but the user is not prepared to answer. You use them to automate the setup process.

More specifically, answer files look just like classic INI files. They are text files. They contain one or more sections, and each section contains one or more properties in the form name=value (see Listing 1). Windows 2000's setup program has a well-documented list of properties that it looks for in an answer file. The file Unattend.doc, which comes with the resource kit, lists all the properties you can use. If the setup program doesn't find a property, it either uses the default or prompts for a suitable value.

On first glance, answer files seem like nothing more than a clever way to automate the setup program. Not entirely truethey're more important than that. Answer files are the heart and soul of any Windows 2000 deployment. They put the administrator in control across spans and time. Whether you're deploying the operating system via a network share, disk image, or Remote Installation Service doesn't matter; you will always require an answer file.

Because they are so important, you'll learn about many advanced answer-file techniques over the next several months. In this installation of "Windows 2000 Deployment," however, you'll learn how to create an answer file, why using a template is better than Setup Manager, and how to use answer files with the Windows 2000 setup program.

Setup Manager

Just say no to Setup Manager. Setup Manager is a resource-kit program that creates answer files. It's a wizard, and it collects only portions of the useful settings you need. Beyond that, it's more cumbersome to use than my favorite answer-file editor, Notepad. Notepad is the ultimate answer file editor: It's quick, it's on every Windows desktop, and it makes available the full range of settings found in Unattend.doc.

The best practice for creating and editing answer files is simple: Keep a template handy. Each time you need to create a new answer file, make a copy of that template and edit it. In fact, use the example answer file you see in Listing 1 as a good starting template. You won't have to use Setup Managerever.

The one exception is a complex network configuration (think multi-homed domain controller or Novell NetWare). Rather than hand-editing the answer file, which is an error-prone process with anything but the most basic network configurations, use this process:

  1. Configure a computer to connect to the network.

  2. Test the configuration thoroughly.

  3. Create an answer file based upon that computer's configuration

  4. Copy the network settings from Setup Manager's answer file.

The last word on creating answer files is, well, Word. Consider using Microsoft Word 2000 to edit answer files. Doing so gives you more documentation and better change management, because the product supports revision tracking and rudimentary version control. You must edit answer files as DOC files, though, and when ready to test and deploy them, export them to SIF files on the network share.

Word has another feature that's useful for editing answer files: spell check. Create a custom dictionary, and then add to it each section and property name documented in Unattend.doc. Doing so helps prevent errors in your answer file by tagging incorrectly spelled names.

This article was originally published on Feb 21, 2001
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