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This is a system for fully automating the installation of Windows 2000 Professional and Server, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003.

Features include:

When you are finished setting up Unattended, you will be able to boot any PC from a floppy, from a CD-ROM, or directly from the network, answer a few questions, and come back an hour or two later to a fully-installed Windows workstation.

But be warned: This is not a ./configure && make install kind of project, and it is not a slick GUI app. You will need to understand at least a little of what goes on "under the covers", and you will need to perform some customization for your site.

Why should I use it?

Microsoft has their own approach to this problem, called Remote Installation Services (RIS). You may be wondering why you should use Unattended instead of RIS.

The main reason is that Unattended is open source. Using RIS, just try to add support for a new network card to the boot disk, or try to create a customized partitioning scheme, or try to fix a bug. With an open source system, you have everything you need to fix any problem or add any feature you want, and you can contribute your changes back to the project so that others may benefit.

Unattended does have other advantages, like using whatever servers you happen to have handy, whether Windows or Unix. But really, other than being open source, Unattended is not all that different from RIS. Perhaps I should have named it OpenRIS...

What about disk imaging?

Whether you use Unattended, RIS, or some other system for Windows deployment, one technique which you should absolutely avoid is disk imaging.

Also called "cloning", disk imaging means taking a snapshot of the hard drive of one machine and restoring it onto the hard drive of another. Microsoft provides tools like Sysprep and RIPrep to help you with this task, and it is a very popular way to deploy systems.

But it is usually a bad idea. Never mind that imaging provides poor support for non-uniform hardware; the big problem is that it creates a maintenance nightmare.

For example, suppose you have several system configurations, including salesperson laptops, developer workstations, automated build servers, and financial systems. In addition, suppose you are in the process of migrating your organization from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, so you need to be able to install both.

Even for this simple example, you will need to create and store eight different images, one for each combination of OS and application suite. To update a common application, you will have to modify and re-create all eight images. Add some diverse hardware like fancy laptops into the picture, and the nightmare becomes clear.

If you are cranking out thousands of identical workstations with completely identical hardware and software, imaging is a fine approach. But if your organization is like most, with heterogenous hardware and software, true unattended installation will give you better reliability and much easier maintenance.

(By the way, another popular but bad idea is application repackaging, which I discuss elsewhere.)

How to start

If you would like to give Unattended a try, you can start right now. We have compiled a step-by-step guide for you.