Deploying Alternative OSs

I've been tinkering with Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS) to take it beyond its out-of-the-box capabilities. Some of my tinkering has involved complicated tweaks. However, using RIS Menu Editor, a free utility from 3Com, is simple. The tool lets you install OSs other than Windows 2000 Professional or execute any bootable disk's routine.

In theory, Microsoft designed RIS to install only Win2K Pro. To do so, however, RIS launches executable code similar to the code on the four 3.5" disks you use to install Win2K Pro without RIS. If RIS is simply a fancy launch of the same installation routines that are on these disks, couldn't you load other disks' routines into RIS and run them, too? Yes, you can, and RIS Menu Editor helps you to do so.

Recap
Before you begin using third-party tools to customize desktop deployments, I recommend learning to use RIS's inherent customization capabilities. With two articles in hand—"Superior RIS: Customizing Win2K Installs," April 2001, and "Superior RIS: Automating Application Installations," May 2001—you have enough information to build a highly customized RIS-based installation system. In "Superior RIS: Customizing Win2K Installs," I show you how to configure RIS's Client Installation Wizard to prompt users for information, populate environment variables with this information, and pass the information to Win2K Pro installations. Thus, you can customize most parts—such as IP settings and screen settings—of the installation.

In "Superior RIS: Automating Application Installations," I show you how to edit the \[GuiRunOnce\] section of a Win2K unattended installation file so that it launches third-party application installations after RIS loads the OS. You can use little-known unattended silent installation tricks in the \[GuiRunOnce\] section to deploy most applications.

Although you can use disk-imaging tools to clone a preconfigured hard disk in a matter of minutes, this method isn't as flexible as RIS. And for some organizations, disk imaging simply isn't an option. For example, your network's workstations might come from a variety of hardware manufacturers, which can befuddle disk-imaging solutions.

You can use the tactics that the Superior RIS articles teach to prepare a RIS installation that's customizable to any workstation. You can launch a RIS deployment in 2 minutes and come back an hour later to a target system that has a customized Win2K Pro configuration and all additional applications (e.g., Microsoft Office, Visio, Symantec's pcAnywhere) installed. However, if you've ever rolled out a large quantity of desktop computers, you know that sometimes you need to do a lot of work before you install the OS. You can use RIS Menu Editor to supplement your customization techniques, prepare your systems, reduce your workload, deploy an OS other than Win2K, and make almost any bootable disk an installation option on your RIS server.

Using RIS Menu Editor
I could devote an entire article to explaining how RIS starts executables, but you wouldn't gain much value from a discussion about this complicated process. And you don't need to understand this RIS capability to use it: 3Com, a dominant player in the NIC market, figured out the technicalities for you and produced RIS Menu Editor, a front-end mechanism that you can use to create an image file of a bootable disk. The name you choose for this disk image becomes a RIS Client Installation Wizard menu item. If the installing user selects that menu item, the RIS server transmits the disk image to the target workstation that then boots from the disk image as if from the actual disk. Thus, if your bootable disk would usually leave you at a command prompt, so would the disk image you use RIS Menu Editor to create. You'll find yourself working from a virtual A drive.

Before you use RIS Menu Editor to customize mass deployments, you need to familiarize yourself with the tool. Before you can test the tool's functionality, you need a bootable disk and the RIS Menu Editor utility. The disk's routine doesn't need to be fancy; I recommend making a plain vanilla DOS bootable disk (i.e., a disk with minimal functionalities) for your initial tests. You can download the RIS Menu Editor utility from 3Com's LanWorks Web site. Unpack the utility onto your RIS server. The RIS Menu Editor package includes an executable, a few supporting files, and documentation. Risme.exe is the main program.

Launching RIS Menu Editor results in a straightforward interface. You can choose from two tabs: the Maintenance and Troubleshooting tab (the default tab) and the Automatic Setup tab. These tabs correspond to options in the Client Installation Wizard's main menu. Your tab choice determines the menu in which RIS Menu Editor inserts the disk image as an installation option. On the Maintenance and Troubleshooting tab, clicking Add starts the Create Menu Wizard, which you step through to create an image of your bootable disk and add the disk image as a Client Installation Wizard Maintenance and troubleshooting tools menu option.

The wizard's first panel, which Figure 1 shows, gives you the option to make one disk image that will appear as a menu option in RIS's Maintenance and troubleshooting tools menu or to make a submenu in Maintenance and troubleshooting tools that you can then fill with several images and submenus. For your initial test, select the first option: Single menu and image file.

The next wizard panel asks you to choose a friendly (i.e., display) name for the disk you want to image. The Client Installation Wizard will display this name for users, so choose a logical name, then click Next.

The wizard's third panel asks whether you have a boot file image that you want to use or whether you want to create one. A boot file image is nothing more than a standard International Organization for Standardization (ISO)­format image file. RIS Menu Editor lets you create RIS menu options for ISO-format image files that you've used other shareware utilities to create. However, 3Com bundled an ISO imaging utility into RIS Menu Editor, so you can simply click Create to make an image on the spot. Clicking Create brings you to the Create Boot Image File dialog box that Figure 2 shows. If you enter the filename that you want to give the disk image and click OK, the utility uses default options to make the image file (the default options are adequate for your initial test). After you click OK, RIS Menu Editor makes an ISO-format image file of the disk in your A drive.

When the imaging process is complete, the View Image File window appears, listing your disk image's files. Figure 3 shows this window for an image file I created from a Windows NT installation disk; if you use a plain vanilla bootable disk, far fewer files will appear in the window. The View Image File interface lets you easily move around within the image file and make necessary changes, such as adding and deleting files.

RIS Menu Editor writes ISO-format image files to your system's \remoteinstall\setup\\tools\3com\i386 directory. RIS Menu Editor also writes a file called tooln.ldr to this directory. This file follows Microsoft's .sif file format (as I mentioned in the previous Superior RIS articles, .sif files are key components of RIS functionality). After the wizard writes your ISO-format image file, you're finished with the RIS Menu Editor utility for a while.

The AD Tools Option
If you were to test RIS from a client system at this point, you wouldn't see your disk image as a Maintenance and troubleshooting tools option. In fact, you wouldn't see the Maintenance and troubleshooting tools option at all. RIS's default installation disables this menu option and hides it from users. To enable installing users to see this menu and the installation options that you've used RIS Menu Editor to create, you need to manually enable the Tools option within Active Directory (AD).

Open the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Active Directory Users and Computers snap-in. Find and right-click your RIS server's site, domain, or organizational unit (OU). Select Properties from the resulting menu. Select the Group Policy tab, then highlight the list's uppermost policy and click Edit to launch the Group Policy console. Navigate through the console to the User Configuration\Windows Settings\Remote Installation Services container. In the details pane, double-click the Choice Options icon. The resulting dialog box will be similar to the one that Figure 4 shows. Click Allow in the Tools section, then click Apply to apply the policy to your AD structure.

As long as this group policy covers the installing user, the Client Installation Wizard's first menu will show the Maintenance and troubleshooting tools option (and your disk image installation options therein). If the user falls outside of the group policy you've defined, you need to apply an additional policy for the site or OU that contains the user.

If you've properly configured the policy, the Client Installation Wizard's main menu will show the Maintenance and troubleshooting tools option when you boot a RIS client to check your work. When you select this option, the wizard will give you another option to run your bootable disk routine. After you select the option to boot your disk image, the disk routine runs, and you end up at a command prompt (or wherever the disk's routine is programmed to bring you) without ever needing to insert a disk in the local drive. (When you test RIS Menu Editor functionality, use only disk images that don't execute destructive commands such as Format C:\.)

If this test doesn't run as it should, check your work, but also be forewarned: RIS Menu Editor is incompatible with some disks (but should work flawlessly with your plain vanilla bootable disks). Other disks require you to tweak the utility before you can make them RIS installation options.

What Works and What Doesn't
Overall, RIS Menu Editor is flexible and easy to use. Possible uses for the utility are endless. However, in the course of using RIS Menu Editor to make images of every bootable disk I could get my hands on, I ran into a few problems.

By default, RIS Menu Editor makes an image of only one disk per image file. So, what can you do when a routine uses multiple disks? To make one disk image of more than one disk, you need to use RIS Menu Editor's Advanced Image Settings. The Create Boot Image File dialog box (which appears in the Create Menu Wizard after you choose to create a disk image) gives you an Advanced option. Advanced settings that you can configure include an image capacity setting. Figure 5 shows an extended size of 6MB, which, in effect, creates a 6MB bootable disk.

After you make an image of the first disk, RIS Menu Editor takes you back to the View Image File window. From this window, you can easily add the other disks' files to complete the image. Typically, putting the contents of all my source disks into this virtual multimegabyte disk was a successful tweak. However, success depended on how the first disk's programs executed and interacted with files that span disks.

Some disks simply aren't bootable through RIS, and other disks boot but not correctly. For example, when I tried to make images of BIOS upgrade disks and run them from the RIS client, the BIOS upgrade routines locked up. Also, the three disks for an NT Workstation installation didn't want to boot from the Client Installation Wizard. Not all BIOS upgrade or OS installation disks will suffer these problems (which seemed to correlate with memory contention). You need to test each disk to know how it will perform.

Highest-Level Superiority
I commend 3Com for making such a great tool and, moreover, for making it free. RIS Menu Editor takes RIS to its highest level, to the point at which you can develop bootable disks that serve your individual needs, image them, then put them on the RIS Client Installation Wizard menu. You no longer need to carry a DOS bootable disk or a bootable PowerQuest PartitionMagic disk. Thanks to RIS Menu Editor, you can store images of these disks on your RIS server, and store the disks in your desk drawer.

Corrections to this Article:
  • In "Superior RIS: Deploying Alternative OSs" (July 2001), the 3Com URL for downloading the RIS Menu Editor is no longer valid. Lanworks Technologies provides the utility at http://www.lanworks.com/eval. We apologize for any inconvenience this error might have caused.