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Automating Windows 2000 Installations with Sysprep

Last week, I discussed automating Windows 2000 installations using unattended answer files. Answer files are the most flexible way of installing Win2K automatically because they let you perform fresh installs or upgrades of Win2K Server and Win2K Professional. You can customize answer files extensively, even to automate domain controller deployment.


This week, I talk about automating Win2K installation with another tool, Sysprep, which you can find in the installation CD-ROM's \support\deployment\ directory. Sysprep is a utility that helps prepare a Win2K Server or Win2K Pro machine (that's not a domain controller) for disk duplication or imaging.

Creating an image of a reference computer and distributing that image to target machines is preferable to using answer files for a few reasons. Imaging is generally faster than performing an installation using an answer file because you create and include only the files necessary for the installation and you can compress the image to aid in its distribution. Also, it's much easier to distribute applications using images.

However, some downsides exist that you should consider when deciding whether to use Sysprep for your deployment. Because Sysprep only prepares a Win2K machine for imaging (it doesn't actually create or distribute images), you have to use a third-party software product to complete the installation. (For a list of companies that provide imaging solutions, see the Microsoft Web site.) Also, you can only use imaging to perform a clean install; imaging doesn't work for ugrades. Finally, although distributing images that include applications is generally a good strategy, some applications don't perform correctly when you install them using imaging. The only way to know how an application will perform is to test it thoroughly.

Using Sysprep

Before you can use Sysprep, you need to create a directory on your hard disk to store the utility's files. You can extract the files (sysprep.exe and setupcl.exe) from the CD-ROM's \\support\deployment\ directory, or you can download an updated version of Sysprep from Microsoft's Web site. The updated version, Sysprep 1.1, lets you create images that can support multiple mass storage devices, reducing the number of images that you have to create and maintain for your network.

Copy Sysprep to the machine that will serve as your reference machine, the original machine that you plan to create the image from. Because you will copy one image down to many machines on your network, it's important to make sure that you configure the reference machine correctly. You should keep the machine as a member of a workgroup (i.e., don't add it to a domain), and leave the administrator password blank. If you plan to include applications as part of the image, log on to the reference machine with a user account that has administrative privileges (not the built-in Administrator account) and configure the applications. Finally, log on as Administrator and copy the user profile of the account that you used to install the applications to the Default Users folder. Because Win2K uses Plug and Play (PnP) to identify hardware, the reference machine doesn't have to exactly match the target machines, but the reference machine and the target machines must have the same hardware abstraction layer (HAL).

Next, run sysprep.exe to prepare the reference machine for imaging. Sysprep removes all the machine-specific settings from the image so that you can send it out to target machines without causing conflicts. You can now use a third-party imaging solution to create the image of the reference machine while it's in this generic state and distribute the images to the target machines.

Automating the Sysprep Mini-Setup

While the image is distributing to the target machines, a mini-setup program runs and reinstalls the machine-specific information that Sysprep removed from the imaged before distribution. To run a completely automated installation, you have to provide this information to the mini-setup program just as you would for an answer file. In fact, you can use the tool we used last week-Setup Manager-to create the unattend.txt file that creates the files to automate the mini-setup program. To do so, choose the Sysprep Install option on the Setup Manager Wizard's third screen, as Screen 1 shows. By answering the questions that Setup Manager presents, you provide the information the program needs to build an answer file to automate the mini-setup program.

For More Information

If you plan to use imaging to automate your Win2K deployment, I recommend that you read the file sysprep11.doc, which Microsoft includes with the new version of Sysprep. Also, check out "Automating Windows 2000 Deployments with Sysprep," a white paper that you can find at Microsoft's Web site. Imaging is great tool for automating deployments, but if you use it incorrectly or fail to perform adequate testing, you'll multiply any mistakes you make on one machine to many machines on your network.

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