Visiting Vista RC2, part 3

The final installation of the Oliver Rist trilogy

It's like I'm the producer of the Die Hard series -- or maybe Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time and Endless Sequels -- you always need one more. My previous two columns focused on my own in-office experiences with Vista RC2. But naturally, because Microsoft was kind enough not to limit the license keys too much, I didn't hog the code all to myself. I also let a couple of my front-line systems administrators take a good look at -- you know, the guys who actually know stuff. So their feedback is what I'm calling "Vista Treats for IT."

First off, users may not see a big features difference with Vista on a day-to-day basis (aside from that pretty interface, assuming you're willing to spring for the video card), but administrators sure will. Deployment was foremost on our minds, so that's what the smart guys looked at first. Significant changes.

No more Remote Installation Services. They've gone the way of the dodo, replaced by WDS (Windows Deployment Services) -- which are still backwards-compatible with Windows Server 2003 but that's it.

Vista OS images are different, too. For one, if you were used to configuring these with Setup Manager in a text editor, then get set for glitz because that doesn't work anymore. Instead, you'll be using Windows System Image Manager, which has support for Microsoft's preferred imaging standard: WIM (Windows Imaging). And you won't be creating these image files using existing tools, either. The new toolkit includes ImageX -- the command-line tool with which to create WIM files -- and PEIMG, which is the configuration tool for Windows PE (Preinstallation Environment) 2.0.

My guys didn't get much of a chance to mess with Windows PE 2.0, but their early reports indicate a good baseline of functionality. Where ImageX allows you to configure the basic set of image files, PE allows you to tweak these images with optional components or new drivers and such and enables testing by being capable of booting directly from within a WIM image. Very slick, although we did notice that the average Vista WIM file is significantly larger than the equivalent XP image file. What my sys admins really liked, however, is that the WIM/PE combo is file-based, not sector-based. Apparently, this allows user-specific image data to remain on the local machine rather than being forced back onto the server for inclusion in the image installation process.

"Should really decrease the amount of network traffic surrounding a large deployment," they said, grinning eagerly.

"Enough so that we could do it during working hours rather than at night or on the weekends?" I asked, grinning just as eagerly in anticipation of less overtime moola.

"No," came the sad reply. I lost interest right around there, but for in-house enterprise people, it's undoubtedly still a happy day.

One thing you will need to do before putting the finishing touches on your WIM/PE master files is check out the Vista PCA (Program Compatibility Assistant). This is right there in the OS and can watch your installation of an application, analyzing for compatibility problems all the while. The Application Compatibility Toolkit is what you hit after PCA to analyze, test, and create deployment packages of entire business application portfolios. Definitely an enterprise-oriented tool but certainly useful if you've got a large library of business software -- especially one that has to be assigned individually to a large number of image groups.

Last goody that I've really liked thus far is networking. Microsoft's really done some work here and not just in it representation on the UI. The entire TCP/IP stack has been rewritten, which not only increases overall performance it adds considerable smarts. Now, Windows will automatically analyze every network connection, its surrounding network environment, and adjust performance accordingly. This really comes across in the wireless client. Noticeably faster and so reliable that you can forget you're running that way rather than over a cable. XP's on-again/off-again Wi-Fi client made that impossible.

If I have a ding, it's Aero. Given that Aero wants such a high-end video card in order to run, those vid cards will naturally want to default to a high resolution. That's fine, but on the Dell M90 I was using, for example, this resulted in a text size that was just too small. I'm inching past 40, true, but I'm not blind. If I need to squint at a 17-inch screen three feet away, then most of you are going to be getting help-desk calls from older users. Best to test this ahead of time and make a larger text size part of certain deployment images.

Herewith ends the Oliver Vista Trilogy.

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