According to Microsoft, you can apply a Windows Vista image to PCs with different Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL). You only need different images for computers with 32 bit and 64 bit CPUs. This sounds like a revolution for Windows imaging and deployment. So I was quite curious to try this killer feature of Windows Vista.
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I started to play with imaging technology since the availability of the first cloning tools. At this time, the hardware of master and target PC had to be more or less identical, otherwise Windows NT wouldn't even boot up. When I first heard that Windows 2000 would bring major improvements in regard to plug-and-play, I was hoping that Windows imaging would become hardware independent. Although, the situation improved with Windows 2000 and again, with Windows XP, we still had to create new images for every bigger rollout with new PCs.
In theory, one should be able to use the same Windows XP image for computers having the same HAL. This basically means the computers have to be compatible with respect to APIC (Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller), ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) and MPS (multiprocessor systems). This is the theory.
However, in practice we had quite varying experiences. Even though computers had the same HAL, we often were not able to apply images to computers with different hardware. Sometimes, we found the reason, sometimes not. Meanwhile, we are not wasting our time with this anymore. If we buy a new series of computers, we always create a new image.
When Microsoft introduced the SMS OS deployment feature pack, there were rumours that the situation improved with the new WIM format. So, I tested again. The results were pretty much the same as with third party imaging tools, though.
You can imagine how suspicious I was, when I heard that Windows Vista will finally make hardware-independent cloning possible. Well, today I tried it. I created an image of a Windows Vista installation using the capturing feature of WDS (Windows Deployment Services). Vista was running on a virtual machine (VMware Workstation 5.5.2). I wasn't able to upload the WIM image to the WDS using Windows PE 2.0. WinPE didn't recognize the network card of the VMware VM. However, I was able to copy the image manually to my WDS server after I started Vista.
I, then, applied the image to a 4-year old PC with an Intel CPU, again with WDS. Everything was running smoothly then. WinPE had no problem with the network card of this old PC and the image was copied without any problem. But the big question was, will the PC be able to boot-up again after the image was applied? Surprise, surprise - this old PC really swallowed this Vista image without choking. Remember, the image was originally created on a virtual machine. The HAL of both installations was different, and most of their hardwares too.
Afterwards, I copied the same image to a relatively new computer with a 64 bit AMD CPU. Of course, most of their hardwares were different too. And - it worked again! You are probably wondering how this could work, since I said before that one needs different images for 32 bit and 64 bit machines. The answer is simple. This 64 bit CPU has a 32 bit mode. So, if you don't want to install the 64 bit version of Windows Vista on your desktops, you can use 32 bit WIM images for 64 bit machines. Later, when you really need 64 bit, you can deploy the 64 bit Vista edition.
That was the moment when I decided that I want this OS as soon as possible in my network. Forget about WinFS, Avalon, Indigo, UAC, etc. This new imaging technology is indeed a killer feature.
The point is not the reduction of the number of images one has to maintain. I think, this technology will change the way we deploy Windows and applications, fundamentally. In fact, in my view the number of images you will need will even increase. Why? Think of how I created my test image. I used a virtual machine.
If you worked with virtualization technology, you know how easy it is to maintain different installations. With VMware Workstation, for example, you create a new installation within seconds, working with linked clones. This way, you can create different images with different settings and applications very fast. If you messed up your reference installation, you simply go back to an earlier snapshot instead of spending hours looking for the error. So, installing the reference machine is much easier now.
And why should you roll out new applications using a complicated software deployment solution, if you simply can deploy the complete OS with all applications? You can easily test and tune applications in a virtual environment, and then deploy Vista to all PCs with this special setting without worrying about hardware or software compatibility issues.
Perhaps, I am bit too enthusiastic about this. I, only, tried three different PCs so far. But it is quite obvious that Microsoft adjusted the Windows Vista setup for this purpose. Imaging is now at the heart of any Windows deployment and not just a domain for third party tools. So, you can expect Microsoft's increasing interest now to address problems that might occur in this area. When the first imaging tools came out, Microsoft recommended not to use these tools and refused any support, if you did it, anyway. Now, things look quite different.
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So what do you think? Are you unhappy that WinFS was cut? Do you want Vista because Aero looks so cool? If you are a sys admin, you probably don't care about desktop search and transparent windows. You want to know how you get this thing running on all your PCs without much hassle.