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.

Windows 7 Backup & Restore

I had my first disk failure this week of my Windows 7 laptop hard drive. Fortunately I’ve been using Windows 7 Backup, and all I had to do was plug in the external USB drive with my backups to another machine, boot off the Windows 7 installation CD, and select ‘Repair…’ using the latest system image from the USB drive. Even restoring a system image from a Dell Latitude to a Toshiba Tecra (with the same sized drive and dual core x64 CPU) was painless, all the necessary drivers were changed automatically with no fuss. The only problem was reestablishing trust with a Windows domain, which was worked around by changing the computer name and re-adding to the domain. The default Windows 7 Backup configuration is to create a system image and backup all files in Libraries, which works just fine for me.

Windows Utilities

CNET has an excellent article on free Windows utilities at  Featured tools include Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Gimp, Paint.NET, MediaMonkey, 7-zip, Foxit, Pidgin, Smart Defrag, WinDirStat and Process Explorer.

Process Explorer is part of the Windows Sysinternals Suite available from Microsoft for power users.

Microsoft also provide free downloads of their Live Essentials applications, which include Messenger, and Writer for offline blog editing.  Google Picasa, however, is much better than Windows Live Photo Gallery.

Wakoopa have a utility and community site for tracking member application usage.  Application rankings and reviews are available by category.

Windows on over 95% of new netbooks

According to this press release Britain’s largest chain of computing superstores has dropped Linux from netbook sales in stores.

Brandon LeBlanc, Windows Communication Manager at Microsoft posted an article stating that

“We’ve seen Windows share on [netbooks] in the U.S. go from under 10% of unit sales during the first half of 2008 to 96% as of February 2009, according to the latest NPD Retail Tracking Service data.”

The pros and cons of Windows vs. Linux may be debatable, but I have not seen yet any challenge to this statistic.

Windows 7 First Impressions

Windows 7 RC was made widely available for download on 5th May from the Windows 7 home page. RC stands for Release Candidate, which means that it is a trial pre-release version that will expire in 2010 but be upgradable to the official release. The story behind the naming of Windows 7 can be found on the Windows Team blog.

Like many, I’ve played with Vista but never made the effort to install it as my primary workstation operating system. Windows 7 is reportedly much less bloated (see for example this Gizmodo article), and with XP at the end of its support life I decided to take the plunge. Windows XP cannot be upgraded directly to 7. Although it is possible to upgrade using a temporary Vista licence I decided to backup all my files and do a full reinstall instead. Like Vista, there will be multiple editions of Seven, but 7 RC is the Ultimate edition, with the most consumer features such as Media Center. 7 RC is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit variants, I chose the latter.

I have a Dell Latitude D830 with a 120GB Momentus FDE.2 drive that provides hardware level full disk encryption. The initial install was drama free and used a little under 14GB of disk space. Wireless networking configured with no fuss, only the Verizon EVDO broadband wireless minicard was missing a driver. Bluetooth discovery of my mobile device worked fine. Ironically it was a while before I realized my nVidia graphics chipset was not being fully utilized and I was missing some of the flashier aspects of the Aero UI. USB devices recognised and configured after I enabled automatic driver downloads included an HP printer, headphone/mic and an external drive for file backups. A USB fingerprint reader and a Logitech webcam did not install automatically, however.

7 RC comes with Internet Explorer 8 installed, though it can be removed. The first thing I did was change my default search provider and home page to Google. First stop was Adobe to install Reader 9 and Flash. Second stop was Sun for Java 6 and then OpenOffice. In addition I visited Microsoft to install a free trial copy of Office Professional 2007 and Windows Mobile Device Center (fka. ActiveSync). The first add-on I installed was Xmarks, which allows me to automatically synchronize bookmarks between Firefox and IE on different workstations. Finally I imported the root certificate used to authenticate the various sites I work with. IE 8 works fine with Outlook Web Access, Zimbra and Yahoo! Mail.

Getting back to the missing Verizon broadband wireless driver I downloaded the 64-bit Vista driver from Dell support and it worked fine. Then I also downloaded and installed the Dell 64-bit Vista nVidia driver and refreshed the performance indexes from the control panel: the results are truly slick graphics, I’m not going to miss CrystalXP. To setup the Logitech webcam I went to the support site and found a driver installation program for 64-bit Vista. Initially this didn’t work, but then a “Program Compatibility Assistant” stepped in and reran the program successfully. I was unable to find a 64-bit Vista driver for the fingerprint reader.

A description of the new features in Windows 7, most notably a new task bar, is available online. Various themes and gadgets are also available. Apart from the new taskbar and slick graphics, another noteworthy new feature of Seven are Libraries. I also like the way that favorites are easily accessible in the left hand pane in Windows Explorer. After installation I went to the Windows Features panel of the control panel, removed Windows Media Center and installed Services for Unix Applications (SUA) and Services for NFS. Having setup my hardware and explored the personalisation I started reinstalling various tools and utilities: Rainmeter, WinDirStat, 7-Zip, WinRAR, KeePass and jEdit. Only old versions of FinePrint and pdfFactory with a kernel mode print driver failed to install. For Linux systems administration I installed Xming-portable-PuTTy and FileZilla. For database development I installed Oracle Database Express Edition and Quest Toad.

Intel’s Processor Identification Utility (PIU) confirmed that my workstation’s Core2 Duo CPU has Intel’s Virtualization Technology and will be able to run Windows XP Mode if I really have to. (Hardware virtualization has to be enabled in the BIOS setup screens also.) Instead, however, I reinstalled VMware Workstation, which works with or without hardware virtualization support, and it boots both my Windows XP and Ubuntu VMs. Additionally I installed the VMware View client for Windows to access centralized VMs running in a VDI environment.

Finally I backed up the workstation with Windows Backup to the external drive. In summary Windows 7 RC has good driver and application compatibility, a slick UI and the good performance Vista lacked, so far I’m not missing XP at all.

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