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What Is Remote Installation Services?

Updated: March 28, 2003

Applies To: Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2003 R2, Windows Server 2003 with SP1, Windows Server 2003 with SP2

What Is Remote Installation Services?

In this section

Remote Installation Services (RIS) is an automated installation technology that you can use to create installation images of operating systems or of complete computer configurations, including desktop settings and applications. These installation images can then be made available to users at client computers. RIS is typically used during large-scale deployments when it would be too slow and costly to have administrators or end users interactively install the operating system on individual computers.

Compared to a standard interactive installation, RIS decreases installation time, eliminates the need to use CDs during installation, and minimizes end user and administrator interaction during installations. To accomplish this, RIS relies on Pre-Boot eXecution Environment (PXE) technology. PXE technology enables computers without an operating system to start up and connect remotely over a TCP/IP network connection to a RIS server, which then installs an operating system. The client computers must support remote booting with the PXE ROM, or they must be started with a remote-startup floppy disk and have a network adapter that is supported by that disk.

To perform a RIS installation, an administrator or end user typically boots a client computer from a PXE-capable network adapter by pressing F12 early in the startup process. This instructs the computer to acquire an IP address and connect to a RIS server. The client computer then downloads a small version of the Windows Setup program from the RIS server. You can configure a RIS installation so that the Windows Setup program interactively steps the administrator or end user through a shortened setup process, or you can configure it so that the entire setup process is automated after the end user or administrator presses F12. Also, you can configure a RIS installation so the installation is image-based or setup-based. By using image-based installations, you can deploy applications with an operating system. By using setup-based installations, you have more flexibility in terms of handling hardware differences among the computers in your organization.

The following figure shows how a RIS installation differs from an interactive installation.

Comparison of RIS and Interactive Installations

Comparison of RIS and Interactive Installations

Like all automated installation technologies, RIS has many benefits that a standard interactive installation does not. These benefits include:

Fewer errors during installation

Because RIS installation uses either preconfigured disk images or answer files to install and configure the operating system, there is minimal user interaction during the setup process. This reduces the number of errors that are introduced during setup.

Greater consistency

By using the same disk image or answer file to install and configure the operating system, you can ensure that all of the computers in your organization are set up exactly the same way.

Shorter installation times

RIS installation is faster than interactive installation because the operating system and applications are preinstalled and preconfigured on the disk image and require only minimal configuration after the disk image is copied to a destination computer. In addition, you can speed up the installation process by using the fully automated installation features of RIS. Instead of prompting end users or administrators for configuration information, the Setup program reads configuration settings from an answer file.

Lower support costs

By minimizing errors during the setup process, increasing the consistency of the computers in your organization, and reducing the amount of time an administrator needs to spend setting up a computer, you can reduce the overall support costs in your organization.

RIS is more complex and requires more upfront configuration and planning than other automated installation technologies. This is because RIS relies on several operating system services and protocols, as well as specialized hardware that supports the PXE specification. However, RIS installation is an efficient deployment technology if you have a high-speed network and you need to install clean operating systems and preconfigured applications onto a large number of computers with minimal end user or administrator interaction.

RIS Dependencies and Requirements

RIS relies on specialized hardware as well as several Windows Server 2003 features and technologies. This includes the following:

High speed network connectivity

The computers on which you are installing an operating system must all be connected to a reliable, high speed network. Wide area networks (WANs) that are connected with analog modems or Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) do not have sufficient bandwidth to support RIS installation.

PXE-enabled hardware

To take full advantage of RIS, each of the computers on which you are installing an operating system must have a Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI), Mini-PCI, or CardBus type of network adapter that supports the PXE specification. PXE-enabled network adapters allow client computers to be remotely booted. In addition, the basic input/output system (BIOS) for each computer must be capable of using the network adapter as a boot device (also known as remote-boot capability). A ROM BIOS that is at least version .99n satisfies this requirement. Also, most computers that conform to the Net PC or PC98 specifications have a PXE remote boot–enabled network adapter and remote boot–enabled BIOS.

The published PXE specification defines the remote boot process and also establishes the PXE compliance standards for hardware manufacturers and other vendors. RIS uses PXE environment extensions to Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), an industry-supported technology, to allow workstations to do the following:

  • Boot remotely using their network adapters to access boot code from a network location.

  • Install an operating system from a remote source to a client’s local hard disk.

The PXE environment is built upon Internet protocols and services that are widely used in the computer industry. This includes TCP/IP, DHCP, and TFTP. The PXE extensions to the DHCP protocol enable information to be sent to network-bootable systems and also allow these systems to locate remote installation services.

TCP/IP network

Your network must support TCP/IP to perform RIS installations.

Dedicated RIS server

You need to install Remote Installation Services on a dedicated server running Windows Server 2003. The RIS server must have at least two NTFS disk partitions — one for booting the server operating system and another to contain the directory structure for the client operating system images or distribution shares. The partition containing the images or distribution shares must be large enough to store one or more operating system images, depending on your requirements. In addition, the RIS server must run the following services: Remote Installation Services, Single Instance Store service (SIS), and the Trivial File Transfer Protocol Daemon (TFTPD).


RIS servers rely on the Domain Name System (DNS) to locate the required Active Directory domain controllers to facilitate domain operations. If you use Windows Server 2003 DNS, you have the benefit of dynamic updates for your DNS server. However, it is not a requirement to use Windows Server 2003 DNS for RIS to function. Whichever DNS server software you use, it must support the SRV RR record type and the dynamic update protocol specified in RFCs 2052 and 2136, respectively.


RIS servers require a DHCP server on the network which is authorized and has an activated scope. Remote boot–enabled computers must receive an IP address from a DHCP server before they can contact a RIS server to request an operating system installation. You can install Windows Server 2003 DHCP or you can use the DHCP services provided with Windows 2000 Server. In addition, you can use a non-Microsoft DHCP server software.

Active Directory

You must install RIS on a computer running Windows Server 2003 in an Active Directory domain. For best results, configure this computer as a member server. Although you can install RIS on a domain controller, the heavy traffic load generated by RIS can impact the performance of the domain controller.

RIS uses Active Directory to locate RIS clients and other RIS servers. You can administer the RIS server from the Active Directory Users and Computers snap-in (Dsa.msc) located on the RIS server. For more information about Active Directory, see the Directory Services Guide of the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit.

RIS Limitations

Although RIS is a fast, efficient automated installation technology, it has the following limitations:

Clean installation only

You can only use RIS to install a clean version of an operating system, with or without software applications. You cannot use RIS to upgrade an operating system or software configuration.

Limited configuration of server components

You might not be able to include all the server components that you want to provide with RIS installation. For example, some server components require that you install and configure them only after the RIS-based installation is complete. This can include components such as Certificate Services, the Cluster service, or software that is dependent on Active Directory.

No support for installing domain controllers

You cannot install a preconfigured domain controller using a RIS image. However, you can use RIS to install a stand-alone server and then configure the server as a domain controller by running the Active Directory Installation Wizard.

No support for configuring encryption and security settings

You cannot use RIS to deploy files that are encrypted with a system such as the Encrypting File System (EFS). Also, you cannot use RIS to deploy systems with preconfigured user-level security settings such as file and folder permissions. To configure these settings, you can run a script after completing your RIS-based installation.

No support for wireless networks

You cannot use RIS to deploy images over a wireless network. Wireless networks do not support remote-booting computers that use PXE technology.

Limited support for multihomed computers

Multihomed RIS servers are supported if the network adapters use multiple separate subnets or if all network adapters use the same subnet. In both cases, the RIS server must also be the DHCP server. The DHCP server must have active scopes for each subnet serviced and must be authorized for each IP address on the network adapters being serviced.

Technologies Related to RIS

RIS installation is similar to other automated installation technologies: unattended installation, image-based installation with Sysprep and Windows Server 2003, and Automated Deployment Services (ADS). Like RIS installation, these technologies are designed specifically as mass deployment solutions. Although you can use all of these technologies to automate the installation of Windows Server 2003, each of these technologies is based on a different set of installation processes, and rely on a different set of programs and tools. If you want to automate installations with minimal user interaction, use an unattended installation. To copy preconfigured operating systems and software applications, you should use an image-based installation with the Sysprep tool. RIS is typically used during large-scale deployments with minimal administrator or end user interaction.

Unattended installation

Unattended installation is a method of automating clean installations and upgrades with minimal user interaction. Unattended installations are particularly useful if you are:

  • Upgrading a Windows server to Windows Server 2003, Standard Edition or Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition operating systems.

  • Performing automated installations on computers that have various hardware configurations.

  • Performing automated installations on specific types of servers, such as domain controllers, remote access servers, and servers that run Certificate Services or the Cluster service.

  • Configuring a wide range of operating system settings during an automated installation without using batch files and scripts.

In addition to these deployment solutions, unattended installation is a useful method of creating master installations for image-based and RIS installations.

To perform an unattended installation, you first create an answer file, which is a text file that contains answers to the questions that Windows Setup normally prompts you for during an installation. After you configure your answer file, you typically create a distribution share (a folder that contains the Windows Server 2003 installation files) as well as any device drivers or other files that are required to customize the installation.


  • You do not need to use a distribution share to perform an unattended installation. You can use an operating system CD instead of a distribution share.

After you have created an answer file and a distribution share, you are ready to start the unattended installation on a destination computer. To do this, you run the Windows Setup program (either Winnt.exe or Winnt32.exe), and specify the name of the answer file that you want Setup to use and the location of the distribution share that contains the installation files. Setup then runs and carries out all of the instructions that are specified in the answer file.

Unattended installation requires some upfront planning and design, but it is the most flexible and robust automated installation technology.

Image-based installation with Sysprep

Image-based installation with the System Preparation (Sysprep) tool is a method of copying, also known as cloning, preconfigured operating systems and software applications onto servers.

Image-based installation with Sysprep is a suitable automated installation technology if you need to:

  • Install identical operating systems and software configurations on multiple computers.

  • Install an operating system and software configuration as quickly as possible.

  • Perform clean installations of an operating system, rather than upgrade an existing installation.

  • Minimize end user interaction and post-installation tasks.

  • Install operating systems on computers that have similar hardware and hardware abstraction layers (HALs).

To perform an image-based installation with Sysprep, you first set up a master installation — a computer with the operating system, software applications, and configuration settings that you want to install onto the destination computers in your organization. Then you run Sysprep, which prepares the master installation so that you can create a disk image (that is, a functionally identical replica of its disk) that can be copied onto multiple computers. Next, you use a non-Microsoft disk-imaging program to create the disk image of the master installation. Finally, you copy the disk image onto your destination computers.

You need two tools to perform an image-based installation with Sysprep: Sysprep, which can be found on any Windows Server 2003 operating system CD, and a non-Microsoft disk-imaging program, which you must purchase from a non-Microsoft vendor. You run Sysprep on the master computer before you create an image of the master computer’s hard disk. Sysprep configures various operating system settings on the master computer to ensure that every copy of the master computer’s disk image is unique when you distribute it to a destination computer. Specifically, Sysprep configures a master installation so that unique security identifiers (SIDs) are generated on each destination computer. Sysprep also configures the master computer’s disk image so that every destination computer starts in a special setup mode known as Mini-Setup. After you copy a disk image onto a destination computer, Mini-Setup runs the first time you start the destination computer.

You use the non-Microsoft disk-imaging program to create an image of the master computer’s hard disk. You also use the disk-imaging program to copy the disk image from the master computer onto a shared folder or a CD, and from the shared folder or CD onto a destination computer.

Image-based installation with Sysprep requires substantial planning and design, but it is the fastest method of installing operating systems and applications. You cannot use it to perform operating system upgrades.

Automated Deployment Services

You can use Automated Deployment Services (ADS) to remotely and automatically deploy Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003 family operating system images onto servers without an operating system. You can also use ADS to configure, maintain, and manage servers. By using ADS, you can reduce administration costs of your data center. ADS is designed for organizations that are running data centers like service providers and corporations.

ADS reduces the number and complexity of the steps required to deploy and configure a server by using task sequences. The processes required to deploy and configure a server have been captured by a set of scripts or tasks that are easily extensible by the data center to follow their business and technical processes. Placing the configuration steps within scripts makes it easy to automatically perform the deployment or configuration of a server or group of servers based on external events (such as the arrival of a customer order, or the need to add additional servers because the existing servers are overloaded).

With ADS, you use a single server, called a “Controller,” to perform large-scale server administration in your data center. The Controller, together with the other ADS services, enables you to deploy operating system images onto servers or to repurpose existing devices with new operating system images. In the data-center environment, you can use ADS to:

  • Mount an image as a file and edit the image.

  • Remotely purpose a device that has no operating system to a useful state or repurpose a device from one state to another state.

  • Run extensible and configurable operations, such as scripts, on one or more systems from a single administration point.

  • Leverage the ADS WMI Object Model to build custom applications.

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