Tired of waiting for the next Windows release, code-named Longhorn, and all its promised improvements? One of those improvements will be a revamped Microsoft Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE), which is currently available to systems makers as part of Windows XP Embedded Service Pack 1 (SP1), the XP version that targets embedded devices.

Like XP Embedded, future Windows versions such as Longhorn will be highly modular (although they'll likely offer less granularity than XP Embedded offers). One way in which Microsoft is taking advantage of this modularity is to switch from the traditional file-based installation routine (involving the i386 directory structure in most Windows installation points) to a dynamic, image-based routine that uses WinPE, a fully functional, stripped-down OS version that's ready to boot immediately. Rather than wait for Longhorn, however, Microsoft plans to release an interim version of WinPE for Windows Server 2003 and desktop-based XP installations. The interim WinPE release will provide immediate benefits for Windows 2003 and XP administrators (or anyone who needs to roll out Windows in volume) and will help prepare them for Longhorn's WinPE version so that they can be ready to implement the new environment when it ships in 2005. Here's what you need to know about the interim WinPE.

Dynamic, Image-Based Installs
With Longhorn, Microsoft plans to dramatically change the base OS to support advanced componentization and customized-installation features. (XP Embedded provides a good preview of things to come.) When you combine a componential OS and an image-based setup routine, you get WinPE—and some exciting benefits. First, an unattended installation that uses WinPE can boot the system, perform system-specific hardware detection, and load the Windows desktop in 15 minutes or less because the setup routine can skip lengthy file-copy routines, reboots, and registry updates. Second, the componential design presents interesting customization possibilities. For example, you can preconfigure images with hardware-specific information, thereby letting the Setup process skip the hardware-detection phase. Third, because the images are dynamic, you can change them on the fly. You can add or remove components such as drivers, service packs, hotfixes, and even third-party applications, ensuring that your master images are always up-to-date.

WinPE, Windows 2003, and XP
The interim WinPE will include the same tools and many of the same features that we'll see in the Longhorn WinPE. For the first time, you'll be able to install Windows without any DOS-based tools—reducing installation time and the number of reboots required to get a Windows system up and running. The interim WinPE will support all 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 2003 and XP, will include new image-creation and maintenance tools, and will let you chain compatible application installations to a Windows installation. In addition to reducing installation time and complexity, the interim WinPE will work on the back end with Windows 2003 tools such as Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS) and Server Intelligent Storage (SIS).

The full benefits of WinPE will depend on Longhorn's componential features, so the interim WinPE's functionality won't be as extensive as the future version's. (Microsoft is developing Longhorn in such a way that anything that builds off the core OS—for example, language support, SKU-specific data for the Tablet PC and Windows Media Center platforms, and updates—can simply cascade off the base image, providing additional functionality.) Still, the interim WinPE will let you dynamically change installation images, so it's worth investigating. The interim WinPE will ship in October 2003.

Recommendations
The interim WinPE is exciting for several reasons, and enterprises should start experimenting with this new image-based installation format as quickly as possible. If you're a systems maker, implementing the interim WinPE is a no-brainer—the new process will dramatically lower costs, complexity, and time-to-market. Keep your eyes peeled for more information about this intriguing bridge to the future.