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Is it time for Vista? Solutions for upgrade problems and advice for deployment and maintenance

Operating systems are constantly being updated. Sometimes it’s to deal with security issues, sometimes to improve performance and sometimes to add new, must have, features.

A new version of an OS can’t always deliver all three and in the two years it’s been on the market, Vista has had something of a chequered career. Initially there were endless reports of people having problems upgrading their existing hardware, applications that didn’t behave and problems with the support of older hardware. Security features were seen as irritating and productivity improvements were masked by issues with file copy performance.

 

Click here to see the article - Why you and your customers want and need Vista

 

 

While some reports were overhyped to make a good headline, the reality for many people was that Vista was something that they should consider avoiding. It didn’t help that Microsoft released multiple versions, although to be fair, this was exactly what it had done with Windows XP. However, with Microsoft Office 2007 also shipping at the same time as Vista, also in multiple editions, there was a lot of room for confusion.

 

Since Vista shipped, hardware prices have crashed so upgrading hardware to support Vista, if that is the route you choose, is cheaper. Any new business-capable computer, with the exception of very low end models, is capable of running Vista, although you might have to upgrade from the supplied version of Vista to a more business-orientated edition. Software vendors have also had time to issue patches for their applications, and this includes Microsoft itself; SP1 has many improvements that make Vista a solid platform for business. Even so, the majority of businesses will be wondering if Vista will work for them or should they still be buying (and downgrading new machines to) Windows XP and waiting for Windows 7?


Vista Service Pack 1

The answer changed in March 2008, when Microsoft released the long awaited Service Pack 1, which addresses the key complaints about Vista. This will be replaced in early 2009 (probably March) by Service Pack 2 but should be installed in any new deployment and used to upgrade any existing machines. There are now drivers for the handful of machines (especially the Dell XPS models) that could not be upgraded to SP1.

 

SP1 adds numerous extra drivers and application compatibility shims as well as rolling up the patches and updates already released for Vista. Reliability improvements have focussed on file system and networking issues; the wireless ad hoc connection success is much improved and file copy is smoother and much faster, especially to network shares. And there are several performance improvements, including better battery life through improved power management and support for stepping processors (where the processor slows down or speeds up based on workload), improved network browsing by using less bandwidth, improved printer driver behaviour and a more resilient print spooler.


 

The Reliability Monitor shows you the history of the computer over time and any problems that have occurred. This allows you to track problem applications and issues even if users don’t mention them as soon as they happen or claim they haven’t changed anything.
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Microsoft also added a number of new security features ranging from additional cryptographic standard support through to multi-factor authentication and support for multiple volumes in BitLocker.
 

 
 If you deploy BitLocker you need to protect recovery passwords. Using the Secure Online Key Backup utility you can create a remote digital locker to hold this information.

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Planning for vista

Deploying and maintaining Vista machines can be much more automated, but that takes planning and preparation. If you don’t have an asset register for the customer covering hardware and software, especially software licence keys, you will need to do a survey. Checking hardware against the requirements for Vista that you intend to deploy is critical. Get it wrong and not only will there be performance problems but you may be faced with a reboot cycle. Take the time to validate the BIOS to the latest Vista compatible version and run the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor (www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=42B5AC83-C24F-4863-A389-3FFC194924F8) to get recommendations for individual PCs or use the Microsoft Application and Planning Toolkit (http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb977556.aspx) to assess machines in mid-sized offices. Plan a backup process for all machines.
 


 
 
 
Understanding which components are impacting performance used to be hard. In Vista you can run a performance report and see where you can have the most impact when upgrading a user’s computer.

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The two most common problems with doing a Vista upgrade are a lack of memory and a lack of disk space. While Microsoft claims Vista will work with just 1GB RAM and 40GB hard disk (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/919183), it would be a serious miscalculation to expect any business machine to cope with such limited resources; applications will struggle as much as Vista will, so plan to upgrade to at least 2GB. If you have less than 15GB of free disk space, the upgrade wizard will not run properly. Even after the installation, don’t expect to get all the space used by temporary files back. Vista will leave a lot of bits of Windows XP on the hard disk if there are no direct Vista file replacements. If you upgrade users to SP1 manually (which isn’t recommended), use the SP1 cleaner (VSP1CLN.EXE) to recover a significant amount of disk space.


Whenever an application encounters a problem under Vista it will create a problem report. You can see whether the user has sent the report off and if there is a solution available through the Problem Reports and Solutions page.

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The most common upgrade issues on older machines are problems with optical drives, graphics and audio; use the audit to get a list of drivers that will be needed and either add them to an image or carry a USB stick with the drivers on. The lack of driver support for older peripherals, especially printers, has led to many complaints about Vista. This is an area where the peripheral vendors are to blame and you may have to fall back on generic class drivers. From a business perspective, it is not always viable to write drivers for old hardware when you are promoting a newer model. Every peripheral you want to connect to a Vista machine should be tested and drivers acquired before you start the changeover to Vista.
 


 
 
 
 
 
The warning screen from the Upgrade Advisor lists any issues you need to take into account.

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Two years in, most major applications now run seamlessly on Vista. Software vendors have issued updates for their products or even released brand new versions in this period. Contrary to received wisdom, over the last two years with a wide variety of applications running on individual machines and in the test lab, I have only replaced one software product and that vendor recently released a Vista-aware replacement. The problem comes with low-level system utilities, older software, drivers for older peripherals that are no longer supported under Vista and some consumer software and free utilities.

 

Low-level utilities will need replacing. Many other applications will still run but need to be configured for the correct operating system compatibility mode by right clicking on the executable and selecting the compatibility options. While this does not guarantee a perfect solution, it does deal with the vast number of applications that do not run natively under Vista.
 

 
  If a customer needs an older application that is not certified for Windows Vista you can force it to run as if it were installed on any of several different versions of Microsoft Windows by configuring the compatibility settings.

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More problems occur during an upgrade than when you’re putting software onto a clean installation of Vista. Create a process by which you can test each piece of software before deployment and use the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=24DA89E9-B581-47B0-B45E-492DD6DA2971 to test whether applications will run happily under Vista and where there might be potential problems. The best Microsoft practice around installing and deploying Windows products, especially Vista, can be found on the Springboard site http://technet.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows/aa904820.aspx.

 
Also, before you begin take a good read through http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc721929.aspx which has a lot of very useful information embedded inside this document covering building master installations, creating and deploying images, useful Microsoft tools and a complete migration guide.

 

Plan how to tell users about the move to Vista and don’t forget about training. Vista is a whole new version of Windows, right down to a vastly improved user interface that not everyone will like. The assumption that users will just ‘pick it up’ because they can search for programs from the Start menu ignores the impact on productivity. As with migrations to Office 2007, your entire world comes to a grinding halt when things have moved or even disappeared completely.

 

Consider whether to replace existing PCs as part of the switch; weigh the cost of addressing issues detected by the Upgrade Advisor on machines that might need to be replaced in a year anyway, against the cost of new computers now.

 

Even if a computer comfortably meets the requirements for Vista, unless you need to retain an application that cannot be reinstalled later, the best approach is always to do a clean install rather than an upgrade. Reformatting the hard drive ensures that any unwanted software is removed and you may want to restructure the hard disk partitions. If disk space is a concern, a clean install uses less space and it’s simpler to troubleshoot problems on a clean install because there are fewer interactions with old software and configurations.


One master image

Maintaining multiple images is time-consuming but building a single image that you can use on all machines and easily update with new patches and drivers used to be hard to do, especially in a small environment where machines can have so many different pieces of hardware. The new file-based Windows Image Format (WIM) makes it easier.
 

 
 
 
 
 The Windows Security Center allows you to determine how users will receive automatic updates from Microsoft; some Microsoft downloads reset these to the default.
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Use the command-line ImageX tool or graphical environments such as Microsoft’s own Deployment Workbench (in the Microsoft Deployment toolkit, previously known as Business Desktop Deployment — www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=3bd8561f-77ac-4400-a0c1-fe871c461a89&displaylang=en&tm#RelatedLinks), Symantec’s Norton Ghost or SriptLogic’s DiskImage to stream in a variety of different drivers so that the same image can be used on a variety of machines. The Deployment Workbench lets you build and manage multiple configurations and inject applications and drivers; it includes a task sequencer based on System Center Configuration Manager 2007 and supports Lite Touch and Zero Touch installation.

 

You may want to adopt many of the new Group Policy settings in Vista. Take the opportunity to look at how you are using policy to enforce security and application access.

 

Adding applications to the master image saves time but think ahead. If you use Microsoft Office across all the computers in the company then it makes perfect sense to add Office into your master build. However, this does not apply to all applications so be careful what you do add to your master build. You should also be licence aware as it is all too easy to add something into your master build for which you don’t have enough licences. If you are using any of the Microsoft bulk licensing programs, you can embed the licence key into your installation files for Microsoft products.

 

A WIM image can contain multiple images and you can use this to create one application image per software vendor. You may want Microsoft Office and Silverlight as part of the operating systems master image but additional Microsoft programs could include Virtual PC or Virtual Server, MapPoint, SharePoint Designer and Expressions. It’s useful to have one image with Flash and Acrobat as well as Adobe Creative Suite and an Apple suite with iTunes, Safari and QuickTime.

 

It’s certainly easy to download the Adobe Basic and iTunes bundles as required to each machine but this gives you a controlled environment. When applications need to be updated, you can test the update and then deploy a new image. This means that any problems are easily tracked, documented and resolved. The alternative is that every machine becomes its own little world which eats time, money and is truly pointless when there are easier solutions.

 

One of the reasons for creating image files is that you do not have to sit through several hours of watching a slow installation. All of the image products mentioned above allow you to speed up the process by just installing what you need. In addition, you can do this by simply pointing at the images and letting the computer do its own installation.

 

As soon as you create application image bundles, you not only ensure that they users are on the same installation grid but you can send them an email link to an installation image (if you’re storing images on a network share) or a DVD and allow them to run the program themselves. There is no risk of them adding in anything they shouldn’t and if you’ve embedded the licence number, there is no risk of that being leaked outside of the organisation.

 

With images on a network share at the customer site, if you need to boot a machine to do an installation of the Vista master, you can use the network redirect to find the image share. Getting that kind of manageable deployment scenario is one of the major benefits of Vista.

 

To listen to many people, you’d think installing Windows Vista was a black art or, at best, a lottery. Nothing could be further from the truth. It requires thought and planning, but you’ll find it saves you time and effort in the long run, and brings customers business and security benefits.
 

 
 The Microsoft indexing tool provides a much improved way of finding files but you need to tell it where to find the files to index if they’re not in the user profile folders.
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Deploying with ImageX

ImageX is a Microsoft command-line utility for building images to deploy applications and operating systems. Files built with ImageX can be deployed over a network or delivered through other Microsoft technologies such as Windows Deployment Services or System Management Center.

 

To use ImageX you build a master computer and customise the installation to have all the features you want. Set the keyboard, language, locale and even network information. You can also add applications to this image.

 

Once you have created the master machine you run the SYSPREP utility to prepare it for imaging. A key advantage of using SYSPREP is that you can use the /generalise switch. This allows you to install the image onto multiple different machines by removing the hardware dependencies from the master installation.

 

As soon as you have run SYSPREP /generalise you boot the computer using Windows PE and then run ImageX from the command line. Depending on what you have installed on the master computer, you could end up with a file much larger than can be accommodated on a DVD image so ImageX does something clever; it allows you to split the image into two.

 

Important command line switches for use with ImageX are:

 

/append – allows you to link multiple images together

 

/capture – captures a volume image to a new .WIM file

 

/mount – mounts a .WIM file as a directory so that you can view and extract files

 

/flags – if you’re going to use the .WIM with Windows Setup you must specify the Vista version
 

 

 

Key Resources
There’s a hands-on description of preparing and using an ImageX image at
http://blogs.technet.com/jamesone/archive/2008/02/12/deploying-vista-sp1.aspx

 

and the full command syntax is explained at
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc749447.aspx

 

Five Vista adoption ‘gotchas’ and how to get beyond them
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc507881.aspx

Windows Vista TechCenter
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows/aa904820.aspx

Windows Vista Deployment Step-by-Step Guide
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc721929.aspx

Use the Enterprise Learning Framework User Guide to create reports and messages to keep users in the loop about Vista upgrades
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb456408.aspx

Why you can’t slipstream SP1 with ImageX
http://blogs.technet.com/kevinremde/archive/2008/02/09/i-can-t-do-what-why-can-t-i-create-my-own-slipstreamed-installation-of-windows-vista-sp1.aspx

 

Key improvements in SP1
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc709618.aspx


Compare the features in the different versions of Vista
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-vista/compare-editions/default.aspx

Find friendly tips that will help users get up to speed with Vista at
http://www.windows-vista-tips-and-tricks.com/

 

and http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,1697,2181865,00.asp


 
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There are plenty of technical discussion sites on the Web, but if you're looking for a community where you have a chance to meet other experts and network in person, check out the list of UK technical user groups at http://www.ukusergroups.co.uk/. The new Active Directory User Group (http://adug.co.uk/) is kicking off with a meeting at Microsoft's London office in October, the Windows Server Team (http://winserverteam.org.uk/Default.aspx) is planning meetings in January and Vista Squad
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