Building a Windows 7 Image for Dell ImageDirect

ImageDirect is a Dell service that allows you to customize the software on a Dell PC before it ships from Dell’s manufacturing facility. In a distributed organization ImageDirect saves PC support staff from unboxing new PCs, ‘staging’ the PC with preferred configuration settings and software, and boxing and reshipping the PC to its final destination.

With Windows XP the ImageDirect process was as simple as uploading a disk image created with Symantec Norton Ghost, but with Vista and Windows 7 the process has become more sophisticated – and complex. The main benefit of the newer approach is that the customizations are merged with the latest Dell drivers for a given machine model, so one customization image can be applied to multiple models, and it will stay current as newer hardware revisions are shipped by Dell. The drawback is that the customization image has to be more carefully prepared in accordance with Dell’s guidelines (eg. only Professional edition or higher is supported), and can only be used on hardware specifically supported by Dell’s ImageDirect service.

The steps can be summarized as follows:

  • Use only supported hardware to build the customization image. Turn off various BIOS settings as instructed in Dell’s documentation.
  • Discard any software already on the machine. Reinstall Windows 7 from Dell’s OEM media. Delete any factory installed recovery partition.
  • Download and install only the NIC driver from Dell’s support site. Don’t install any other Dell device driver software.
  • After installation enable the Local Administrator account (net user administrator /enable:yes).
  • Log into the local administrator account and delete the account created during the installation process.
  • Customize the local administrator account and install software as required. Check for and install any updates then turn off further automatic updates.
  • Unconfigure any network interfaces (ipconfig /release)
  • Make a system backup.
  • Install and run the Dell Windows 7 Capture tool from DVD.

Once a customization image has been uploaded it has to be retrieved and audited by applying it to a sample machine, possibly the same machine that was used to prepare the image in the first place. Make sure any NIC has an Ethernet cable attached as otherwise the restore may fail.

My first experience with ImageDirect was not as positive as I had hoped for. Dell direct sales has limited familiarity with how ImageDirect works. The upload/download process for 4+GB files is time consuming. The high speed file transfer utility provides better transfer rates using UDP, but there was no way to recover if a transfer was interrupted. The ImageDirect build process can take several hours to prepare an installation image based on an uploaded customization image. The imaging installation process has bugs: troubleshooting issues can wipe out the savings promised by the factory automation. In summary this offering has great potential for larger deployments but be prepared for an upfront investment in time and effort that may not be worthwhile for smaller deployments.

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