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SmartDeploy Does "Drivers and Deltas" RIGHT for OS Images

On November 28, I wrote a blog entitled “PSmartDeploy Helps Ease Heterogeneous OS Situations,” in which I promised a follow-up early this year to provide more technical details about how the company makes a science of the slippery art of matching Windows drivers to Windows OS installations. I got my info fix on this topic, and more, in a conversation with SmartDeploy’s Director of Sales, Spencer Dunford (an uncommonly technical sales guy, if ever I ran across one) and his colleague, Senior Systems Engineer, Erik Nymark, this past Monday (January 9, 2011).

The patented technology that SmartDeploy uses for its driver magic makes perfect sense, and probably reduces a lot of painstaking work and serious reverse engineering, to build on the great work that Microsoft has done with the Windows Pre-Installation Environment (aka WinPE) and its boon companion, the Windows Image (WIM) format and container mechanism that Windows Vista, 7, and 2008 Server versions use to manage OS installation and packaging of image information for same.

Prowess SmartDeploy uses WIM as a storage format and data container for all of its packaging and image presentation methods. It has worked its way deeply enough into WIM internals, in fact, that it does the following to deliver WIM data elements for use in actual deployments (where individual components get combined into a valid WIM container that’s used as the focus for image installations):

  • Hardware/device drivers are broken out into a separate component file that can be built and managed independently of OS files and components. These are known as “platform packs” and confer some interesting advantages from their use: they are based on device enumeration from a reference image, and therefore need only contain those drivers that some particular Windows installation actually needs, rather than a sizable galaxy of possible device drivers that any foreseeable Windows installation might need. Thus for example, the DriverStore folder in my Windows 7 installation is 1.07 GB in size (which represents possible drivers) while the Drivers folder is under 58 MB in size (which represents the drivers it’s actually using). Essentially, the SmartDeploy approach allows the OS build to zero in only on the drivers it needs, and omit everything else, to achieve considerable image size reductions.
  • The OS and other components travels along for deployment as well, and remains logically and physically separate from the driver stuff. This makes it alot easier to mix and match various platform packs with the standard OS portion to support environment where as many as 60 or 70 different reference images must be supported.
  • Perhaps most interesting, SmartDeploy can also support “delta WIMs” so that an existing image can be merged with a set of changes (new updates, service packs, and so forth) without having to transport the entire image from a deployment server to its deployment targets. Thus instead of moving typical images that can be anywhere from 5 to 25 GB in size to replace an old image with a new one, the existing image can be updated in situ with the SmartDeploy tools and laid down to replace its previous incarnation entirely in place. This often means that delta WIMS of 500 MB to no more than a couple of GB in size will do the job quite nicely.

Misters Dunford and Nymark also showed me some very cool demos that showed these technologies at work, and performed a live update of a Windows 7 Professional image with a delta WIM that took less than 15 minutes to complete, and even less time to set up and stage for deployment. SmartDeploy makes excellent use of Wizards to structure initial images, and to build deltas upon those images, and also includes some slick automation for creating answer files to perform post-install tasks for adding applications and other runtime components to OS images as they get deployed to target machines.

The biggest benefit of their tools and technology is that, according to Dunford, they “…have seen a change in how frequently and how often images are updated, and patches or changes are deployed in image format.” Anything that makes this kind of job easier and faster to accomplish is definitely worth digging into. Check out the SmartDeploy website for more information.

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