Choosing the Best Windows 2000 Deployment Method

Do you support 100 computers? 1,000 computers? 50,000 computers? No matteryou have a plethora of deployment tools and techniques at your disposal to solve any problems. Some are more appropriate than others, but the perfect solution does exist.

You have to admire my confidence in your deployment plans!

The only problem is wading through all the murky options, choosing the one that best suits your requirements, and then uncovering any nasty surprises before they leap out and nip your deployment in the bud. That’s why I’m writing this series of articles. After helping dozens of companies with their Windows 2000 deployments and teaching a Windows 2000 deployment seminar, I’ve decided to put what I’ve learned into words.

So, for my first installment, let’s choose the best deployment method for your enterprise. Seldom will you be able to rely on a single method, thoughyou’ll choose one as your primary deployment method and use the others as backups for special circumstances. Your primary deployment method might be disk imaging, for example, but you’d use custom CDs for field users.

In upcoming installments, I’ll expand on the methods you’ll learn here. These are writing answer files, installing Windows 2000 from network installation points, deploying disk images, and using Remote Installation Service. You’ll learn the strengths and weaknesses of each; known bugs and workarounds; and best practices for each deployment method. For now, I’ll introduce you to each of the methods available for Windows 2000.

Answer Files

Answer files are the heart and soul of any Windows 2000 deployment. You use them whether your method is a disk imaging technique, network installation points, or Remote Installation Service. Thus, this isn’t a choice as much as it is a chance to build better deployments by understanding their foundations.

You might know answer files as Unattend.txt, the typical file name given to them. Answer files look just like INI files. They have sections with the format [name]. Within each section are parameters with the format name=value. The setup program looks for responses in the answer file rather than prompting users for that same information. The result is usually an automated installation that requires little or no user interaction.

The quickest way to create an answer file is using Setup Manager. Setup Manager, Setupmgr.exe, comes with the Windows 2000 Resource Kit. You can also use a text editor such as Notepad to create an answer file. In addition to Notepad, you’ll need a copy of Unattend.doc, the document that describes all of the parameters you can use in an answer file; it also comes with the Windows 2000 Resource Kit. For the record, Setup Manager does not generate complete answer files, so you’ll almost always have to edit them by hand.

Because answer files are so important, I’ve dedicated the next few installments of this series to them. The result will be a collection of snippets that you can cut and paste into your own answer filesa source of reusable answer files, if you like.

Network Installation Points

A network installation point is a deployment method that combines the Windows 2000 CD with your answer file to automate the installation. You run the setup program and pass the answer file to it as a command-line option. This method has the distinct advantage of being the only one you can use for upgrading from earlier versions of Windows.

Here’s the way this works. You copy the i386 folder of your Windows 2000 CD to a network share; CamelotW2ki386, perhaps. Then, put your answer file in the Windows 2000 share and distribute the command to users. It might look something like:

winnt /s:CamelotW2ki386 /u:CamelotW2kUnattend.txt

You can use numerous methods to deploy the command:

  • Logon scripts
  • Systems Management Server
  • Bootable network diskettes
  • Bootable Windows 2000 CDs
  • Common registry hacks
  • Scheduled Tasks folder

This flexibility is a network installation point’s primary advantage . Also, the setup program runs on every client computer, ensuring that it properly detects the hardware on a diverse collection of hardware. It also preserves users’ settings during an in-place upgrade, something that other techniques do not allow. All this isn’t without its faults, though. Network installation points use a horrendous amount of network bandwidth, particularly if you don’t roll out the operating system a few computers at a time. Last, you can’t distribute most applications along with Windows 2000.

Deploying Windows 2000 from network installation points is a viable method, even for enterprises with 50,000 desktops. Many well-known companies still use this method over more complex disk imaging techniques because of its simplicity. The fewer moving parts the better. They also build custom solutions such as computer-name databases that generate answer files for each user and automatically start the installation process. Ideas abound in this space.

Disk Imaging Techniques

Numerous hardware and software disk-imaging solutions are available. Their essence is the ability to take snapshots of disks. The difference between each is the distribution tools. The most popular solution, and in my opinion the best, is Symantec Ghost with Microsoft Sysprep. Here’s how the process works:

  1. Install Windows 2000 on a lab computer.
  2. Prepare the disk for imaging using a tool such as Sysprep.
  3. Create a snapshot of the disk using a solution such as Ghost.
  4. Distribute that snapshot to each computer.

Disk imaging has just about everything going for it. It’s fastultrafast when you compare it to installing Windows 2000 from a network installation point. The addition of multicast allows you to distribute Windows 2000 to 100 computers for the bandwidth of one. It also has the flexibility of including third-party applications in the image, extending the operating system to suit your requirements. Depending on the disk-imaging solution you choose, the process is also completely automated and can be initiated remotely. For example, a common scenario is a help desk call that exceeds its time limit; the support person can reconfigure the computer with a new image without actually visiting the desktop.

This technique does have a few problems, though. First, it isn’t as flexible when you have a large collection of diverse hardware. Disk imaging requires you to deploy an image to similar hardware. You usually end up with a large number of images, each for a different configuration, and these images become unwieldy. Second, when you install a new image, users lose their existing documents and settings. This doesn’t have to be a problem, though, as you’ll learn in the upcoming installments.

Remote Installation Service

Remote Installation Service (RIS) is Microsoft’s Windows 2000 deployment solution. This isn’t a separate product; it comes with Windows 2000 Server. You don’t have to pay a separate license fee, either; it’s already covered in each CAL.

RIS is a bit torturedit’s an odd combination of network installation points and disk imaging techniques that shares the best of both but adds its own problems. It carries with it some heavy-duty infrastructure requirements, for example. It’s slow when compared to disk-imaging techniques, because RIS actually copies each file from the server to the client computer and then runs the setup program. Still, RIS has promise and, if you can work within its requirements, might be a good solution for your enterprise. The differences between RIS and other deployment technique are best illustrated by walking you through the process:

  1. The user restarts the computer and boots from the network.
  2. The PXE-enabled network adapter gets an IP address from the DHCP server and then downloads the Client Installation Wizard (CIW).
  3. The user logs on to CIW with his name, password, and domain.
  4. The user chooses the image he wants to install, walks away while CIW copies the files to the computer, and then restarts the computer to continue the setup process.

Keep in mind how Microsoft intends for you to use RIS. It’s part of the IntelliMirror umbrella, which includes Roaming User Profiles, Offline Files and Folders, Redirected Folders, Software Installation and Maintenance, Group Policy, etc. After using RIS to reconfigure a computer with a new image, Windows 2000 downloads users’ roaming profiles, redirects their My Documents Folders to the network, reinstalls their applications, and reapplies their settingsall without intervention. The idea here is to make it painless to replace machinesand this idea is much closer to reality now, due to RIS.

Choose Just One

Which of the three methods is best? The answer to that question lies in your requirements. To identify which method might be best for your enterprise, compare your requirements to Table 1. Look at each method’s strengths and weakness. For example, if network bandwidth conservation is a requirement, you’re probably going to toss out network installation points. On the other hand, if you support only 100 desktops, then simplicity and cost is a requirement and network installation points fit the bill.

Table 1: Features of the Three Windows 2000 Deployment Methods


Coming Next

In the next installment, I’ll introduce you to the intricacies of writing answer files. You’ll learn how to build them and then how to use them with the setup program. I’ll show you how to use Setup Manager to get started and then how to refine the results to match your requirements. You’ll also learn about some of the most important settings you should include in an answer file and why. Additionally, I’ll describe the settings that will cause you the most grief and why you should avoid them. Last, I’ll include a collection of scripts that you’re free to use in your own Windows 2000 deployments. //

Jerry Honeycutt is an author, speaker, and technologist with over 25 books to his credit. He successfully uses RIS in his own small office.

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