In IT, nothing is simple—least of all understanding every new Microsoft release. In this month's survey on deploying Windows Vista, one reader asked Microsoft, "Why isn't this information more 'in-your-face'? This survey is the first I've heard of some of this stuff. I don't have the time to search for all the new technology. I'm responsible for lots of stuff and can't focus on finding all the new technologies."

I know that readers are interested in Vista, the next version of Microsoft's desktop OS and the replacement for Windows XP: Traffic to our Web site spikes when Paul Thurrott writes a Vista article. Like the reader quoted earlier, people want information about new Vista features and reviews of the latest Vista Community Technology Preview (CTP). Now that we're approaching Vista's Release to Manufacturing (RTM), I asked readers about their plans for upgrading to Vista and deploying it.

Of the 551 survey respondents, 39.6 percent said they had no Vista plans. However, 29.6 percent plan to move to Vista within one year of its release, 24.4 percent within two years, and 6.4 percent within three years. Hardware and application compatibility tied for readers' biggest deployment concern, and the deployment aid that readers requested most from Microsoft was imaging tools. In an interview, Microsoft addressed these concerns and pointed readers to some not-so-well-known tools.

Hardware and Driver Compatibility
I asked Vista Deployment Program Manager Manu Namboodiri which survey findings were most intriguing. He replied, "People said hardware compatibility issues were as big as app compat. I would've thought app compat and the process of migration would be a bigger deal than hardware. It could be that they foresee 64-bit coming, various devices, Tablet PCs, laptops, desktops."

Many respondents want the "ability to deploy the same image to multiple hardware platforms." Manu said, "Vista has a new imaging format, Windows Imaging, which is file-based as opposed to sector-based." Because Windows Imaging Format (WIM) is file-based, you can copy an image and edit it while retaining the original image. And because the images are individual files, you can easily manipulate them in the file system. He continued, "You can create one image and put it on a Dell laptop, an HP desktop, and a Tablet PC, for example. You can deliver the same image to multiple architectures because Vista detects the HAL \[hardware abstraction layer\] on the fly. Usually, you need a different image for each HAL. Because the imaging format is file-based, we can use the right image for the HAL, so we eliminate a lot of hardware compatibility issues. But drivers will always be needed, and we can inject drivers on the fly."

Manu added, "The only constraint is 32-bit and 64-bit. Obviously, they will require separate images. However, the imaging technologies are not just for desktops. They're for the servers as well. We're consolidating imaging technologies so you can use the same tools to deploy Longhorn Server."

Simplified Deployment
Because imaging came up so often in the survey, I asked Manu to address specific reader requests for ways Microsoft can reduce the cost and complexity of deployment. Several respondents wanted the "ability to layer images so that there is a base image, along with department images."

Manu answered, "You can layer Vista images because we provide single instancing. For example, you can create a base image and a marketing image and store them both inside a single WIM container, which stores the common files only once; we call that single instancing. But if the question is, 'If I patch the base image, is the marketing image automatically patched?'—that is not possible. You definitely need to patch each individually."

Another reader requested "the ability to edit an image after deployment and roll out the changes in multicast fashion. Also the ability to easily adjust an image for new hardware; or better yet, images that are not hardware restricted."

Manu admitted, "We do not support multicast. You'll have to build your own multicast architecture on top of what we provide." However, he went on, "I think the reader is asking how you service an image. Before Vista, the problem was that you might have 10 images. You'd get a patch and test it against four or five of them. You might miss some images, and those images would get out of synch. If someone tried to patch, they could get the old image and still have an unpatched system. But with Vista, you don't have to boot up the image, install the patch, shut it down, and recapture it. All you have to do is drop the patch straight into the image. The chances of images getting out of synch are low because you can do offline service and online service exactly the same way."

Readers also asked for "delivery of OSs over the network and flexibility in how images can be deployed."

Manu replied, "We've rewritten our remote deployment architecture. RIS \[ Microsoft Remote Installation Services\] is not the easiest tool to work with, so we've revamped it. Also, we had like three or four PXE \[Preboot Execution Environment\] providers—Windows Server had one, RIS had one, and I think SMS \[Microsoft Systems Management Server\]also had one. If you put all these PXE providers on the network, they clash with one another. So we've consolidated into one PXE provider: Windows Deployment Services. WDS replaces RIS. All the other technologies, such as SMS, will work on top of WDS. Also, WDS is available as a download, which you can install on Windows Server 2003, not just Longhorn Server."

Spreading the WinPE Word
Another reader requested the "ability to insert drivers into a Sysprep image during a minisetup, not just when the image is created."

If you're not a Microsoft Software Assurance (SA) customer, you might not know about Microsoft Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE). Although WinPE's availability was previously limited, Manu said that "WinPE for Vista is available to everyone. When you run WinPE, you can dynamically inject drivers into a running WinPE image. Currently you have WinPE on a DVD that you put into your drive. If you want to insert a driver, you have to eject your DVD, which loses WinPE. The new version of WinPE loads into RAM as a RAM disk; it kind of formats your RAM as a disk and runs there. So even if you take out your DVD and put in another CD-ROM with the drivers, WinPE is still running in memory. It's pretty cool."

To readers who requested "a compatibility-tool to check a desktop before Vista installation," Manu responded, "That's what WinPE is. It has diagnostic capabilities, backup capabilities, and all that stuff. WinPE is built with the same WIM technology and the same component technology as Vista, so you can do the same things with WinPE that you can do on Vista. You can write your own applications to do diagnostics because it supports FTP, HTTP, and IPsec."

Manu continued, "Because WinPE has been restricted, people don't know a lot about it. Once they know about it, it will be a big deal. TechEd will have a lot of WinPE sessions and hands-on labs."

A One-Stop Deployment Resource
Finding deployment tools for Windows XP on Microsoft's various Web sites was notoriously difficult. For Vista, Microsoft's Solution Accelerator for Business Desktop Deployment (BDD) is the designated collection point for "end-to-end guidance for efficient planning, building, testing, and deploying." BDD is a great idea, but I pointed out to Manu that only 8 percent of survey respondents have used BDD. He admitted, "That's true, and we want to change that. We provided a few deployment tools for XP, but our approach was haphazard. For example, some people know about the Windows Application Compatibility toolkit, but they don't know about USMT \[User State Migration Tool\] because we haven't marketed \[those tools\] with a single deployment story. That's what we want to do with BDD." Instead of sending customers to different sites for different tools, Microsoft is making BDD the one-stop Vista deployment resource.

In response to readers who want "comprehensive reporting of preparation issues and failures linked to online analysis and resolution," Manu replied, "BDD focuses on planning and designing. We'll provide a lot of deployment reporting through BDD tools. BDD is the glue that ties all these things together and makes sure they work well together in a workflow environment. BDD will have monitoring, so you'll know how deployments are proceeding. It will have a lot more capability in terms of light-touch and zero-touch installation. And BDD will be a free download that will package all these tools together."

Keep It Simple
The largest percentage of survey respondents report having from 5 to 9 images, and the next-largest percentage has from 10 to 19. More than half of respondents rate supporting multiple hardware platforms as the biggest obstacle to reducing the number of images, with software distribution coming in second.

Manu's advice: "Look at our app compat and migration tools. Spend a lot of time planning. Inventory your applications now. Figure out your organization structure and the applications you want, and design the right number of images.

"What did Einstein say? 'Make it as simple as you can, but no simpler.' We think we can reduce the number of images by 50 percent in an average organization, but you have to determine what's best for you. You can make the base image large and put everything in it. Having one image might work for some organizations; other people might have a skinny base image and add the rest of the stuff dynamically. That might increase the time to install, but provides more flexibility. If you plan and design better, deployments will go a lot smoother than before."

If you're testing Vista, email me about your experience. Will Vista be easier to deploy than XP?