Build and organize tools that will make your job easier

When you're busy putting out fires, do you trudge through inefficient processes instead of taking time to improve them? Consider a better approach: Stock your toolbox with the tools you need to easily, quickly, and consistently execute repetitive tasks.

You stand to realize the biggest benefits of this strategy with one type of task: OS and application deployments. If you use a systems management package to assist with such tasks, you've probably already seen the value of automating these processes. If not, assemble your own tools to achieve the same effect. A good and simple first step is to create a network share that contains installation source files for frequently installed products. This step will start to pay you back the first time you're in the field and need to install an application for which you don't have media.

Another step is to use command-line switches and answer files to automate the installation process. If you have Windows 2000 Server, start by learning about and implementing Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS). To begin, see Sean Daily, "Understanding Remote Installation Services," February 2001, InstantDoc ID 16432. Although RIS by default works only for Win2K Professional installations, you can configure it to act as a "virtual boot disk" for installing other OSs—Douglas Toombs explains how in "Superior RIS: Deploying Alternative OSs," July 2001, InstantDoc ID 21131.

The complex and finicky nature of unattended Windows NT installations helped give rise to third-party imaging applications, which are indispensable in some environments. For a review of some available products, see "Disk-Imaging Solutions," June 15, 2001, InstantDoc ID 20876. If you decide to use such a product, be sure to test your system images thoroughly before you deploy them in your environment.

After you collect and implement your tools, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. Like real tools, however, your tools will need to be maintained and sharpened. For example, as new Win2K service packs appear, you'll want to use Win2K slipstream capabilities to update your OS installation source files so that new installations are automatically at the current service pack level. For instructions about slipstream or integrated installation operations, read the spdeploy.doc file on the Service Pack 2 (SP2) CD-ROM (or download the file by clicking the Installation and Deployment Guide link at http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/downloads/servicepacks/sp2/default.asp#learn).

I only recently discovered how easily I can export my custom tools to a bootable CD-ROM for use on non-networked computers. For instructions about creating a bootable Win2K CD-ROM with slipstreamed installation files, visit http://www.windows2000faq.com/articles/index.cfm?articleid=21331. By using a different boot sector and a little creativity, you can create bootable CD-ROMs that provide a portable arsenal of tools.

After you gather your tools, keep them organized and accessible. Put tools on removable media in one physical storage location, and give some thought to the network storage location and structure of your online tools and documentation.

Of course, some of the best tips for creating effective tools come from Windows & .NET Magazine. As you read about a useful tool, build it and put it in your toolbox. If you can't build it immediately, at least create a text file that describes the tool's function and notes where to find the documentation. You'll be glad you did.