FLEXnet AdminStudio is a MSI packaging solution from Macrovision (formerly InstallShield). There is a Standard, Professional, and an Enterprise Edition. All three are commercial versions, but the limited SMS Edition is free. I believe it is sponsored by Microsoft, as they offer it on their Web site.
However, even if you don't have Systems Management Server, you can still work with the FLEXnet AdminStudio SMS Edition to create MSI packages. I tried it and was quite content with it.
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The downloadable setup file from Macrovision installs the Professional Edition. If you activate it, the extra features of the Professional Edition will be disabled. You can try these additional tools for 30 days. Please check out this comparison table if you want to know more about them.
The SMS edition only contains the Repackager, the Distribution Wizard, and the Tuner. The Repackager is the most important tool. You can use it to create MSI packages. There are two ways to do this.
You can repackage legacy packet formats. FLEXnet AdminStudio supports the formats of InstallShield, WinINSTALL, ZENworks, SMS, and Wise. The other way is to create a MSI package by capturing the setup process of the program you want to deploy.
FLEXnet AdminStudio offers two options here. You can let the Repackager monitor the setup process or you can let it compare the states of the computer before and after the installation. The latter is known as the "differential method" or "snapshot method".
Monitoring the setup process is the preferred method as it is more reliable and usually needs less time for repackaging. The Repackager will intercept the setup program and log all changes made to your master PC. It will capture registry changes and files copied to the system. It is also possible to log the deletion of files and registry changes.
When the setup routine is finished, the Repackager creates a package in its own format. The limited SMS edition of FLEXnet AdminStudio allows you to exclude files and registry entries, but you can't edit them. For this, you need one of the commercial editions. When you are done with creating the package, you can build the MSI file with the Repackager.
With the Distribution Wizard, you distribute a package as an administrative installation, to a network location, or to a FTP server. The Distribution Wizard also allows creating MFI files for SMS 1.2 and SMS 2.0.
If you work with SMS 2003 or any other software deployment solution, you probably don't need the Distribution Wizard. You can just import the MSI file instead. In SMS 2003 you right click on "Packages," chose "New," and then "Package from Definition." The wizard will lead you through the MSI import.
In my test I deployed a MSI file containing a setup for Firefox. I created it using the monitoring method of the Repackager. As usual with MSI packages, you can run attended and unattended setups, per user or per system. You can also uninstall the software using the same package. I had no problems during my tests.
The SMS Edition also includes the Tuner tool, which enables you to create MST files. You can use them to add additional files and registry entries to your package.
Overall, FLEXnet AdminStudio SMS Edition made a very good impression on me. I was able to use it immediately without reading the documentation. If you only want to create MSI files, the limited edition is sufficient.
You can use the MSI packages with SMS or with any other software deployment solution. Of course, it is also possible to work with Group Policy to deploy them.