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Microsoft Windows 7: Top Tools for Deploying Windows 7

There are several helpful toolkits that can ease the deployment process for Windows 7, whether for physical or virtual machines.

Joshua Hoffman

The technology that drives desktop deployment has evolved by leaps and bounds over the years. In the early days with Windows 2000 and Windows XP, you had to follow fairly rigid steps and manually configure things to be just right. Then you would snap in an image with a third-party tool. Today the process is completely malleable, with numerous improvements.

Microsoft introduced deployment toolsets with Windows Vista, and they were substantially improved for Windows 7. These tools provide a framework for building desktop images you can customize, update, automate and deploy in any number of ways to suit your organization’s needs. The largely manual and haphazard approach is gone. You can now use tools that give you considerable flexibility and efficiency.

These new tools and deployment techniques help you simplify, streamline and accelerate the desktop deployment process. You can create, update and manage Windows 7 images; capture and migrate user data; mitigate application compatibility issues; and provide a larger framework that helps you pull it all together.

Windows Automated Installation Kit

Let’s begin with the basic deployment building blocks. You’ll find most of these in the Windows Automated Installation Kit, or Windows AIK. The tools included in the Windows AIK provide most of the functions you’ll need to build, configure and deploy Windows images (see Figure 1).

Tool Function
Windows System Image Manager (Windows SIM) Opens Windows images, creates answer files, and manages distribution shares and configuration sets.
ImageX Captures, creates modifies and applies Windows images.
Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) Applies updates, drivers and language packs to a Windows image. DISM is available in all installations of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.
Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) A minimal OS environment used to deploy Windows. The Windows AIK includes several tools to build and configure Windows PE environments.
User State Migration Tool (USMT) Migrates user data from a previous Windows OS to Windows 7.

Figure 1 The tools and utilities included in the Windows AIK.

If you’ve used some of the Windows AIK tools in the past for Windows Vista, you’ll notice the inclusion of the USMT 4.0 in the Windows AIK for Windows 7. The USMT includes a number of new features, including the hard-link migration store, offline capture of user state data and, most importantly, tight integration with System Center Configuration Manager and the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT). For more on what’s new in the USMT, see the USMT 4.0 release notes.

The Windows AIK is a prerequisite for most of the deployment techniques presented here. Download the Windows AIK for Windows 7 here.

Application Compatibility and Virtualization

One of the more common issues you may encounter when undertaking a desktop deployment is that of application compatibility, especially with legacy applications (which may no longer be supported). These may still be business-critical, so you’ll have to identify and accommodate them. Before you begin your actual deployment, the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) can help you mitigate any application-compatibility issues.

The ACT helps you conduct a rationalization of existing applications, identifying potential duplicates, conflicting versions and so on. By helping you standardize the application set within your organization, you can reduce the number of applications you need to test prior to deployment.

After the rationalization process is complete, the ACT can help you test each application for Windows 7 compatibility. This may be as simple as presenting details from the application manufacturer indicating whether or not the application is compatible. In some cases, though, you’ll be faced with in-house applications that will require more detailed testing. You may also encounter applications known to be incompatible that require mitigation in order to work properly with Windows 7.

For some applications, you can apply compatibility fixes—also known as shims—to help them to work properly with Windows 7. You can use shims with a large number of previously incompatible applications to quickly and easily get them to work. For example, there are shims that make an application believe it’s running as an administrator when it’s not, or that it’s running on Windows XP, when in fact it’s running on Windows 7.

For those incompatible applications that you simply can’t mitigate with shims using the ACT, you may need to use virtualization to run the application in Windows XP Mode. You could also use Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), which can help emulate a previous version of Windows.

MED-V is part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP). It lets you run applications within a virtual machine (VM) running an older OS, and do so in a way that’s completely seamless and transparent to the user. Applications appear and operate as if they were installed on the desktop. Users can even pin them to the task bar.

Microsoft Deployment Toolkit

Once you have the Windows AIK in place, and you’ve used the ACT to prepare your applications for migration to Windows 7, it’s time to build and deploy your Windows 7 images. The MDT is the heart of the desktop deployment process. This toolkit provides a complete framework for the customization, automation and deployment of new Windows 7 desktops. It also supports deploying Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2003 servers.

The latest version, the MDT 2010 Update 1, provides a number of enhancements. It now supports Office 2010, lets users initiate and customize their own deployments with Configuration Manager, and has enhanced Windows 7 driver support.

With a centralized control panel called the Deployment Workbench (see Figure 2), the MDT completely streamlines the process of deploying a new OS. The MDT supports three primary deployment scenarios: Lite Touch Installation (LTI), Zero Touch Installation (ZTI) and User Driven Installation (UDI). Each scenario provides different levels of automation and user interaction based on your needs and capabilities. You can read more about choosing the best scenario for your situation in the document “Using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit,” which is included in the MDT download.

The Deployment Workbench in the MDT 2010 Update 1

Figure 2  The Deployment Workbench in the MDT 2010 Update 1.

There are a number of approaches to creating images, as well. You may choose to create a “thick image,” which represents a complete capture of the entire desktop environment, including OS, drivers, applications and so on.

Conversely, “thin images” take a more minimalist approach, including only what is absolutely necessary to create the desktop computing environment. This approach lets you add applications and settings later in the process.

Finally, a “hybrid image” is just as it sounds: a “compromise” image that includes basic applications and customizations that apply to every user. You can then apply further customization later.

Once you’ve selected a deployment approach and image style, the next step is to use the MDT to create a deployment share (see Figure 3). This is where your images will be stored, and the location from which you’ll deploy them.

Creating a new deployment share

Figure 3 Creating a new deployment share.

Within the deployment share, you can add OSes (see Figure 4), applications, packages (including system updates, hotfixes and so on) and drivers.

Adding an OS to a deployment share

Figure 4 Adding an OS to a deployment share.

With all the components in place, the next step is to create a task sequence. This orchestrates the key steps involved in carrying out core deployment scenarios. The MDT includes a number of task sequence templates to help you get started, including a Standard Client deployment task sequence (see Figure 5).

A Standard Client deployment task sequence

Figure 5 A Standard Client deployment task sequence.

From within a task sequence template, you can add, remove or customize each deployment step to fit your needs. From within the template OS Info tab, you can open the Windows SIM, which is part of the Windows AIK. The Windows SIM (see Figure 6) lets you modify OS attributes, including registration and activation information, look and feel, domain membership, and so on.

Modifying Windows image attributes in the Windows SIM

Figure 6 Modifying Windows image attributes in the Windows SIM.

This only begins to scratch the surface. As mentioned earlier, the MDT framework includes a number of deployment scenarios, including LTI, ZTI and UDI. Each of these uses different deployment technologies, including Windows Deployment Services (WDS) and System Center Configuration Manager. There’s full documentation and walkthroughs of these different scenarios included in the MDT help files.

You can download the latest release of the MDT, along with complete documentation of the MDT tools and processes. There’s print-ready documentation available as well. Also be sure to have a look at Michael Niehaus’s blog and the Deployment Guys blog, both of which offer further tips, videos and walkthroughs on Windows 7 deployment with the MDT.

Joshua Hoffman

Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.