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Automating Windows 7 Deployment: tools and strategies

Enterprises have some decisions to make as they deploy Windows 7. Should they use Microsoft's tools or use third-party options? Here are some steps to follow and example tools.

In my Windows Enterprise Desktop blog for the past two years, I've often written about various tools and techniques...

for deploying Windows 7 in an enterprise setting. Now that the balance is finally tipping in that operating system's direction (see Mark Kaelin's July 22 poll for some interesting numbers), how might you go about deploying it to enterprise desktops?

The Microsoft way or some other way?

The tools and approaches for deploying Windows 7 that make the most sense for an enterprise will depend to some extent on how closely it has allied itself with Microsoft. Organizations that already have volume licensing agreements with Microsoft or that already pay for Software Assurance are likely to find an "all-Microsoft" approach appealing for both technical and cost reasons. Otherwise, organizations have lots of excellent third-party options.

Below is a typical blueprint for a wholesale OS deployment. This applies to all enterprises, whether they choose Microsoft tools and technologies to roll out Windows 7, or use some different tool set and follow a different deployment path.

Five steps to Windows 7 deployment

Rolling out Windows 7 involves planning for and testing the OS, followed by performing a wholesale, large-scale deployment. Here's what enterprises need to do to turn this into a workable and manageable process:

1. Windows 7 deployment planning: This must start with an inventory of the end-user computers, OSes and applications already in use in the enterprise. Hardware must be evaluated and tested for suitability. The Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor is an excellent tool for this purpose and is suitable for any enterprise that maintains standard desktop and notebook configurations; the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (MAP) will also be useful for conducting complete site inventories. Only Windows Vista qualifies for an "upgrade in place" or upgrade install maneuver. Machines running Windows XP (or older Windows versions) must be subjected to clean Windows 7 installations -- if such hardware doesn't need outright replacement. End-user applications must be checked for compatibility with Windows 7. This is where the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) version 5.5 will prove invaluable.

2. Windows 7 component selection: The results of the site survey and application compatibility testing will help organizations determine if they need to deploy virtualization technology (such as the Windows XP Mode capabilities available for Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions) or third-party virtualization technologies (such as VMware, Altiris or VirtualBox). Either can provide support for legacy apps that won't work directly on Windows 7 but that will run happily inside virtual machines in a Windows 7 runtime environment.

3. Construct reference images: IT professionals must identify system configurations to which Windows 7 must be deployed and then build standard OS images for like sets of target machines. This involves creating a Windows 7 installation image, which at this point probably means something with SP1 slipstreamed into that image. It will probably also involve other approved Windows Updates, plus various applications, gadgets and utilities that the enterprise associates with specific end-user job roles, like developer, engineer, data-entry clerk and executive.

4. Test and pilot deployments: For anything that scales across the enterprise, careful planning, lots of testing and rollback strategies are essential. Once a usable set of reference images has been built, a lot of testing will first occur in a lab situation, followed by one or several pilot deployments to groups around the organization. It's very important that no wholesale deployments be attempted until all stakeholders are convinced that the images, the tools and the rollout procedures will work properly. IT should conduct the rollout within some specified time frame to prevent any harm to productivity or working routines.

5. Wholesale or piecemeal deployment: Only when all of the elements appear to be working properly should deployments of any scale take place. Even then, most savvy organizations plan for such activities over long holiday weekends, when there's time for things to go wrong and rollbacks to be restored before everybody expects normal access to computing resources. Even so, some organizations parcel out the deployment process and perform piecemeal deployments (usually on a geographical basis) so that the entire enterprise need not be affected by problems. You'll also want technology providers to have high-level technical staffers available during the deployment window so that maximum expertise can be brought to bear quickly to resolve any potential problems.

The Microsoft way to a Windows 7 deployment

This approach involves a combination of the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) and Microsoft System Center, as well as some of the assessment and analysis tools already mentioned. In situations where virtualization must be extended to the desktop -- such as when older applications require access to Windows XP Mode -- the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) is also likely to come into play.

Enterprises that wish to take this path would be well-advised to select and train a team of IT pros who will handle deployment planning and implementation at least three to six months before any test or pilot deployments. Staffers need to become familiar with these Microsoft technologies before they can be put to work in a production setting. Don't skimp on training time or budget -- the stakes are high and these products can be complex and occasionally vexing. IT needs experience with these tool sets for a successful deployment.

Other paths to Windows 7 deployment

A plethora of excellent, enterprise-class Windows 7 deployment tools is available. The examples in Table 1 below represent only a smattering of the full range of offerings, but each product is worthy of investigation and consideration. Enterprises that elect a third-party option can still use Microsoft's inventory, assessment and planning tools, but they should also investigate similar deployment automation tools. Organizations that take a third-party path should also consider the training, consulting and support options available from these vendors.

Table 1: Selected Windows deployment solutions

Company Product Name Notes
Acronis Snap Deploy Supports multiple hardware configurations with Universal Deploy add-on; fully automated.
AppSense Environment Manager Provides creation of standard desktop images for delivery to all employee desktops and PCs.
LANDesk Software LANDesk Automates Windows 7 migration and rollout with planning, design, testing and deployment tools.
Citrix XenDesktop Enables virtual desktop design, delivery and maintenance for the whole enterprise.
Dell Kace K2000 System Deployment Appliance Is an appliance-based OS deployment system for remote unattended deployment of a desktop or server OS.
Laplink PCMover Enterprise Automates Windows 7 migration, handles PC refreshes and provides for break-fix scenarios.
Novell Zenworks Manages configuration and lifecycle management for OS migration, deployment and maintenance.
Symantec Altiris Deployment Solution Provides mass deployment support for hardware-independent images to new and existing systems.
Tranxition Migrate7 Is specifically designed for large-scale, wholesale migrations from Windows XP to Windows 7.

How to achieve a successful Windows 7 deployment

The old carpenter's saw goes "measure three times, cut once." The same sort of caution or "belt-and-suspenders" thinking also applies to enterprise-class OS migrations or deployments. Regardless of whether your organization chooses Microsoft or some other route to moving its desktops and notebooks to Windows 7, don't be afraid to check and recheck everything as you move from planning and design through testing and pilots to deployment. That's the only way to be sure of a successful outcome.

Read more from Ed Tittel

About the author
Ed Tittel is a longtime computer industry writer, with over 100 computer books and thousands of articles to his credit. His most recent book is Computer Forensics JumpStart. Read his IT Career JumpStart and Windows Enterprise Desktop blogs for TechTarget, as well as his weekly posts for @EdTittel is his Twitter handle.

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