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Microsoft deployment tools - choose your weapon wisely!

Applies to: Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2

Microsoft has a slew of deployment tools to choose from so how do you know which one is right for you? Do you base your decision on the number of computers you need to deploy? How about your company's geographical topology? Or the current skill set of your IT pros? I've had people ask "Do I need to install ConfigMgr, Windows Deployment Services, the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, and the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK) for Windows 7 just to get started? And what is this Modena thing?"

The answer is... well, it depends on your deployment needs. Do you need to push an operating system deployment (OSD) with no human intervention to your client computers thus performing a zero touch installation (ZTI)? Or, do you want someone to have to initiate the installation/migration of Windows 7 to your clients performing a lite touch installation (LTI)? Don't just consider how to get Windows 7 deployed to your clients (or Windows Server 2008 R2 to your servers for that matter); you should also consider how to handle re-imaging as this is a commonly-used troubleshooting step in IT today. In this short article, I'd like to give you an overview of each of the tools and reasons why you would choose one tool over another, and how to integrate multiple tools together to get the right deployment solution for your environment.

System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr)

Microsoft's flagship deployment product is ConfigMgr and it comes with all the bells and whistles of a dream deployment: scheduled/mandatory OSD ZTI, the ability to target specific machines with an OSD based on criterion determined by you (for example, 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster processor, 2GB RAM and 40GB of available hard disk space). ConfigMgr allows you to push an OSD to the computers of your choice at the time of your choosing due to its built in Wake on LAN (WOL) feature.

Along with OSD, ConfigMgr offers so much more: hardware and software inventory, patch management using Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), and detailed reporting capabilities allowing you to follow every step of an OSD. ConfigMgr also scales great to any size organization regardless of the number of offices or geographical disbursement. On the down side, ConfigMgr can be difficult to install and set up correctly – the Active Directory schema must be extended, SQL Server is required, and there are multiple site server roles to be configured. If you're new to ConfigMgr, find a class taught by a reputable source and learn the ins and outs of installation and configuration to avoid making costly mistakes that can waste valuable time. Performing OSD deployments requires Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2010, and MDT 2010 requires Windows AIK for Windows 7, so integration is a must. You can also choose to integrate Windows Deployment Services (WDS) for its multicasting functionality. WDS offers the ability to send an OS image to multiple computers at the same time instead of unicast traffic which puts a much larger burden on your server.

Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010

If ConfigMgr is not an option for you, the next best tool is the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit. MDT 2010 Update 1 (U1) requires Windows AIK for Windows 7; both are free downloads from Microsoft. MDT 2010 U1 performs LTIs and provides built in templates for refresh, replace, upgrade and bare-metal installations. One of my favorite features of MDT is the way it compartmentalizes your entire deployment solution. This makes it a snap to manage your images, from adding/removing drivers to easily swapping out the operating system you would like to deploy.

There is, of course, the old debate on thick versus thin images that we should take into consideration. With MDT 2010 U1 thin images is the way to go – okay, possibly a thin image with your corporate software included (called a hybrid image) and then optional software you can install during the deployment process. MDT 2010 U1 can do something close to a ZTI with a little extra tweaking, but you may have to integrate third-party (sometimes paid-for) solutions for functions like WOL where ConfigMgr provides WOL by default. MDT also offers two great features for companies that have small branch offices that possibly don't even have a server:

  • Media allows you to put an entire deployment solution onto a DVD (or set of DVDs depending on size), UFD, or external hard drive, or
  • You can create a linked deployment share and copy the entire deployment solution (or just bits and pieces) to a local office so those clients can perform their deployments locally

You can also integrate WDS with MDT 2010 U1 for two features: the ability to PXE boot (F12) to begin a deployment and multicasting functionality for MDT images. Integrating MDT and WDS for PXE boot requires you to store the MDT generated Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE) to WDS's boot images.

Windows Automated Installation Kit for Windows 7

The Windows AIK contains tools that both ConfigMgr and MDT 2010 U1 use "under the hood." The Windows AIK includes ImageX to create and apply images, plus Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) to mount, un-mount and manage images (add/remove drivers and packages to an OS image). Other tools include:

  • OSCDIMG, which converts .wim images to .ISOs
  • Windows System Image Manager (WSIM), which creates unattended answer files in .xml format
  • User State Migration Tool 4.0 to assist you in migrating user profile information, IE favorites, documents, and application settings
  • Copype.cmd to create a WinPE working environment so you can create custom WinPE
  • Volume Activation Management Tool 1.2 to help you centrally manage volume activation

Most of the tools in the Windows AIK are command-line only and the few that provide a user interface have a steep learning curve. Although you could perform a complete deployment using the Windows AIK, the tools can be difficult to learn because each has its own unique syntax.

Windows Deployment Services

WDS is a role that is out-of-the-box with Windows Server 2008 (and Windows Server 2008 R2) and the latest evolution of Remote Installation Service (RIS). WDS requires Active Directory, DHCP, and DNS (unless you implement the Transport Service only) and provides LTI only. Microsoft supports deploying both .wim and .vhd image formats. Installation and configuration is pretty easy although the driver management is a bit cumbersome. WDS provides PXE boot capabilities and multicasting of images to your target computers. Two of the drawbacks of WDS are image management and the fact that WDS can only provide bare-metal installations. Thick images are your only option and if you want to make a change to an OS image you have to export the image from the WDS snap-in, use the Windows AIK tools to make your changes and add it back to the WDS snap-in. If you need to perform a refresh or replace scenario you would need to fully script them yourselves. I say why bother – MDT 2010 U1 does all this for you and more!

The bottom line is if you already have ConfigMgr, integrating it with MDT 2010 U1, Windows AIK, and WDS provides the most robust feature set. Next would be MDT 2010 U1 (which requires Windows AIK) for its ease of use, manageability of images and friendly wizards. Lastly WDS is a great tool if you are only doing bare-metal installations and your OS image doesn't change often. The greatest strength of WDS is how easy it is to integrate with ConfigMgr and MDT 2010 U1. As for the Windows AIK tools, you really need to learn them. I know it takes time, but ConfigMgr and MDT 2010 U1 both use the Windows AIK tools and, to be able to troubleshoot your deployments quickly and efficiently, knowing these tools is imperative. So, whether you have 200 or 200,000 computers to deploy, each tool can provide a complete deployment solution along with its own set of pros and cons. As for the skill set required, anyone can learn these tools; it just takes a little time and testing. I hope this article has helped you to decide which tool will do the job for you and give you a starting point to get more information.

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About the author

Rhonda Layfield photoRhonda Layfield has been in the IT industry since 1982. She is a Microsoft Setup and Deployment MVP and Desktop Deployment Product Specialist who also offers lecture-based (demo-driven) and hands-on deployment courses. For more information, visit