Windows Enterprise Desktop


January 28, 2009  7:04 PM

Delays for Vista SP2 Loom Large

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

TechARP, our regular source for Microsoft release rumors, has updated its estimated dates for Windows Vista SP2 release dates. As of last week, dates have slipped by at least one month. That means that the SP2 release candidate (RC) won’t be built until March, 2009, and also means that the RTM build originally scheduled for April won’t occur until May or possibly even June. Thus, launch must also be delayed until May or June as well “barring any further delays” as TechARP so sagely observes in this connection.

It’s also interesting to read current reports that Vista had a hand in recently lowered financial results/expectations for Microsoft, and thus also how Vista played a role in Microsoft’s recently announced layoffs for 5,000 of its employees. It should be interesting to see if the layoffs turn around and lead to further stretching on this already-stretched out schedule.

Hopefully, Microsoft won’t let these delays stretch out too far. Enterprise buyers already waiting for Windows 7 and planning to jump straight from XP to the newest desktop will surely take heart from any further schedule lapses, making Vista’s problematic status only more so.

January 28, 2009  6:39 PM

Other Uses for a Bootable WinPE UFD

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’ve just finished writing a story for Tom’s Guide on using a bo0table WinPE UFD, and doing the research¬† for that story led me to a few interesting discoveries. First and foremost, no self-respecting Vista administrator should be without a bootable WinRE UFD–but perhaps, WinRE is more recognizable as the Windows Recovery Environment that you can fire up from the Windows Vista installation media.

It turns out, you can also follow my instructions on building a bootable WinPE UFD, and then use the imagex utility from the Windows Automated Installation Kit to capture the recovery environment Windows Image (.wim) file from your installation media. All you have to do then is swap the boot.wim file that my process creates in your ISO\sources directory with the boot.wim file that you export from your install media, and presto! you’ve got a WinRE console that boots in under two minutes, instead of having to wait three to five minutes for the same functionality to become available from the Vista installation DVDs.

Because I’m always messing with various Vista installs, I have to resort to the recovery environment at least once a week where I work. I’m guessing that busy system admins with any number of Vista machines to care for can beat that frequency with ease. In such cases, a bootable UFD with the WinRE console ready to hand can help save lots of wait time, and enable more “work time” on affected Vista systems.

Another, perhaps more esoteric use, might be on netbook PCs where disk space can be at a premium. I’m learning how to extend the WinPE environment to run other programs, including Windows Explorer (and some claim, even IE) from within the WinPE context. Because most simple Windows GUI apps (think items in the Accessories folder, as good examples of what this means) will already run in WinPE, it’s not hard to conceive that a somewhat extended WinPE environment could be workable for netbook users seeking to slim runtime system size to 0.5GB or smaller (by itself, the WinPE I describe how to build in my previous blog is about 367 MB in size; WinRE is less than 250 MB, but lacks network drivers and access).

As time goes by, I’m sure I’ll figure out some other cool uses for WinPE as well. If you know of any, please share them with me in the meantime!


January 21, 2009  6:11 PM

Playing with the Vista SP2 Beta

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Over the past week or two, I’ve been messing around with the Windows Vista SP2 beta. For a release with beta status, it’s amazingly stable, and some of the new functionality is welcome (burning Blu-ray media works as advertised, and indeed wireless connectivity is a bit easier and more straightforward). The update roll-up makes it much more convenient to build a new system: by my seat-of-the-pants comparison it shaves about an hour off the time required to get a new Vista system up and running, thanks mostly to cutting the number of updates required from 60-plus to less than 10. By the time Microsoft released the RTM version the first number will undoubtedly grow, and the second number will depend on the time lag between the RTM date and the public (RTW) release date.

Some interesting observations when building Vista SP2 systems, or doing an upgrade:

  • Keep your drivers handy: although “normal Vista” finds and supplies drivers for all hardware components on my test systems, Beta SP2 somehow did away with some key elements, including network interface drivers, some mouse and keyboard drivers, and a few other odds and ends, mostly USB related.
  • Use on several notebook PCs shows improved power management promises are true, but not excessively dramatic. I observed battery life improvements of about 20-55 minutes on various systems, right at or under the 10% improvement Microsoft promises.
  • I read about but haven’t tested issues with Wireshark (WinPcap problems? Microsoft Monitor Driver, says VNUnet.com) related to an inability to capture dial-up or VPN sessions with this tool.
  • Though MS claims SP2 requires fewer resources for and better performance from Windows Sidebar, I wasn’t able to observe a noticeable difference between “before” and “after” systems (though Task Manager does report lower memory consumption).

Recent rumors (see the update to TechARP ED#106) indicate that the SP2 release has slipped by one month, as MS hunts down some substantial bugs. Apparently that now means RTM in April or later, with release to Web about six weeks thereafter. Stay tuned! I’ll keep you posted as things develop.


January 19, 2009  8:19 PM

MS eLearning Course 5352: Fundamentals of the Vista Startup Process

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Starting Up Windows Vista covers hardware startup, BIOS, POST, then bootstrap load via MBR, and takes you all the way through the boot-up process until the initial log-in prompt appears, after which the login process, services start-up, and the overal startup process completes. I learned a fair amount from this course, although the material was already 90% familiar to me, thanks to over a year’s daily experience in working with Windows Vista.

Here’s how the course lays out

  1. Starting up Windows Vista
    1. Windows Vista startup process
    2. BIOS and MBR (Master Boot Record
    3. Windows Boot Manager in Windows Vista
    4. Windows Vista OS loader
    5. Interoperation with earlier Windows versions
  2. Logging On to Windows Vista
    1. Overview of User Logon Process
    2. Process for computer logon
    3. User and Kernel modes of operation
    4. Process for initializing drivers in Windows Vista
    5. Process for starting services in Windows Vista
    6. Process for User Logons in Windows Vista
  3. Using Other Start Mechanisms and Startup States
    1. Windows Vista Preinstallation Environment (WinPE)
    2. Pre-boot execution environment and Windows Deployment Services
    3. How Windows Vista Starts Up from the Network
    4. Additional Startup States in Windows Vista
    5. How Windows Resumes from the Sleep State
    6. How Windows Resumes from the Hibernate Stare
  4. Using Windows Advanced Boot Menu Options
    1. Windows Vista Advanced Boot Menu Options
    2. What is Safe Mode in Windows Vista?
    3. What is the LKGC Option in Windows Vista?
    4. What is Boot Logging?
    5. The Low Resolution Video Opotion
    6. Guidelines for selecting Boot Menu Options
  5. Lab: Managing the Vista Startup Process
    1. Scenario & Exercise Information
    2. Troubleshooting Missing Startup Files
    3. Troubleshooting Missing OS Files
    4. Launch Labs/Lab Review/Module Summary

Microsoft told me it would take about two hours to work my way through the class, and they were right. By and large, most of the material was well-presented and made a reasonable amount of sense. I found myself visiting TechNet a few times throughout the class when the level of detail didn’t quite go low enough to help me understand what was going on (more information about BCDedit, and a demo on running various boot-time utilities would have worked better for me than their simulated labs, wherein the interface didn’t work properly, or perhaps just not as it said it should).

This is definitely a class for those interested in learning more about Windows Vista’s inner workings. Was it worth $40. Maybe: I knew enough of this material already that I found myself wanting more, but then I have already worked with all/most of the facilities covered in the modules for the class. Somebody just digging into Vista would undoubtedly find it useful and informative, particularly if their prior experience had all been with XP and previous Windows versions (the Vista boot environment includes some significant additions to and changes from previous versions).

All in all it was a pretty interesting experience.


January 19, 2009  4:48 PM

Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Like clockwork, Microsoft proffers up a new version of the Windows Malicious Software Removal Tools on each and every Patch Tuesday. In January, 2009, that item is described in Knowledge Base article KB890830. This tool is not intended to replace anti-virus or anti-spyware tool, but it can be nice for Vista admins to recognize that the tool gets updated monthly and can more or less be guaranteed to be present on Vista PCs as long as:

  • Updates get pushed to Vista desktops regularly
  • The list of pushed updates includes the current Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool

Just for grins, I decided to dig up and learn the details involved in using this tool. The name of the executable file is mrt.exe, which is actually the recommended string to launch the tool as well (simply type mrt.exe into the Vista search box, and it’s off and to the races).

Once you fire off this program, it presents a window on the desktop that looks like this:

The Malicious Software Removal Tool Reports status as it scans

The Malicious Software Removal Tool Reports status as it scans

As it’s running, mrt.exe can consume some resources, however. Check out these screen caps from my Sidebar CPU usage widget and Task Manager’s process window, captured about the same time as the preceding screenshot:

CPU consumption usually runs about 25% for this program

CPU consumption usually runs about 25% for this program

Task Manager shows that the mrt process is pretty active

Task Manager shows that the mrt process is pretty active

The good thing about mrt.exe is that if admins need to help users cope with possible malware infestations on the road, it’s nearly always safe to assume that this tool will be available on the machine, ready to use to help track down and possibly clean up what ails it. That said, mrt.exe can be the only tool in the clean-up arsenal, where special purpose diagnostic tools such as HijackThis or various rootkit detectors must often play a role, and where special purpose one shot clean up tools from various antimalware vendors must also occasionally be called into play.

But as tools go, this one ain’t bad, and it’s never too far from any Vista machine, either. If there’s one downside to mrt.exe, it’s speed: on a test scan on my production Vista PC (Ultimate, with about 90 GB of files spread across 3 hard disks) the program took over 3 hours to perform a complete, in-depth scan of my system. Savvy admins will have tired road warriors fire this off before an extended break, or before bedtime, to help their charges avoid excessive losses of computing cycles on their traveling machines.


January 16, 2009  6:27 PM

Patch Tuesday Brings SMB Relief

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Microsoft kicked off 2009 with a very interesting critical security update on the first “Patch Tuesday” of this year: MS09-001 Vulnerabilities in SMB Could Allow Remote Code Execution addresses issues with the Server Message Block Protocol that go all the way back to Windows 2000 (and would go further except that’s where the Microsoft¬† “update horizon” kicks in). This update address three vulnerabilities in all:

  1. SMB Buffer Overflow Remote Code Execution Vulnerability (CVE-2008-4834)
  2. SMB Validation Remote Code Execution Vulnerability (CVE-2008-4835)
  3. SMB Validation Denial of Service Vulnerability (CVE-2008-4114)

Of those three, the first is the scariest because it allows forged SMB packets to compromise a machine at the System level on any Windows PC running the Server service (except for Vista and Server 2008). That said, this is a “theoretically possible” exploit, rather than a known or demonstrated one. Number 2 is similar to number 1 except that it could affect Vista and Server 2008, but not in their default configurations. It’s more likely, in fact, that 1 and 2 will produce the same effects as number 3, and result in a denial of service for SMB hosts (again except for default Vista and Server 2008 configurations) than actually resulting in remote code execution. But whether you’re ducking a system takeover or just a DoS, this patch is definitely worth applying to your Vista systems anyway.

Other items from this Patch Tuesday include:

  • Updates for the various MS email (Outlook and MS Mail on most Vista machines) Junk Email Filters (KB959141 and KB905866)
  • Malicious Software Removal Tool for January, ’09 (KB890830)

These are entirely routine, and while worth grabbing, don’t really cry out for much attention or coverage. I also found a Realtek RTL8168B/8111B GbE Interface update in my queue, for several of my Vista machines including both notebooks and desktops, so I suspect others will see and welcome this driver update as well (installed without a glitch on all affected machines).


January 14, 2009  6:17 PM

Using the WinPE Boot UFD, Part 1

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

This weekend, I was fooling around with my Windows Home Server machine (a very nice HP EX475 MediaSmart Server) and found myself forced to repeatedly reinstall the Windows Home Connector software on one of my client machines. As I would learn from HP Tech Support, I was as much a victim of my own stupidity or lack of careful consideration of my install environment–I’ll tell you what happened to me in a minute, and you can make that call–as I was a victim of limitations in the software itself.

But during my troubles with the WHS connector, I downloaded and read Microsoft’s Troubleshooting WHS Connector Installation document and also grabbed its Windows Home Server Toolkit at the same time (note: this link points to the 32-bit version; a separate download is available for the 64-bit version). The only error this collection of tools and information couldn’t address was a claim of a version mismatch between my client machine and the WHS box itself; because the client actually copies that software from the server, I was mystified as to how this could be the case.

As it turns out, my client is running AVG AntiVirus 8.0 Free edition, and there’s something about this software that prevents the WHS connector from running properly on that machine and talking to the WHS box itself. I could remote desktop to the WHS server from the client, but the connector would hang as soon as it got past the login screen where I provided the administrative password that normally gives me access to the WHS console. As it turns out, something about AVG blocks IP name resolution for the server, because once the HP guy helped me pinpoint the package as the source of trouble–I disabled it, and presto! the console login completed without a hitch–a little further research showed me that adding a line into the hosts file to equate the server name with its IP address would fix the problem. And sure enough, with AVG re-enabled and the host patch in place, everything is now working as it should be.

I hope you’re asking yourself by now: what the heck does this have to do with the WinPE Boot UFD in the title of this blog? As it turns out, the help instructions for cleaning up the mismatch error that the connector troubleshooter was reporting for my notebook PC includes these instructions “On your home computer, delete the %ProgramFiles%\Windows Home Server folder if it exists. Well, it existed all right, but when I tried to delete the directory or its contents, even when using “run as Administrator,” those files stubbornly resisted deletion.

WinPE Boot UFD to the test, and ultimately, to the rescue! First, I had to change the boot device order on my notebook to hit “USB Storage Device” first. With that handled, the laptop opened a standard black-and-white progress bar at the bottom of the display, and indicated “Windows is loading files. . .”.¬† After a wait of about a minue, a standard “copyright Microsoft” light green progress bar flashed up for about 15 seconds, followed by a command window labeled Administrator: X:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe. To delete my resistant files I typed the following commands:

c:                                         :: change to C:\ drive
cd "C:\Program Files\Windows Home Server\" :: change to WHS directory
del *.*                                    :: delete all files
cd ..                                      :: move up one directory level
del "Windows Home Server"                  :: delete WHS directory
exit                                       :: Close WinPE (reboots system)

Everything worked like a charm and when I went back to check to the drive with Vista rebooted, sure enough those files and the directory were gone. I’ve blogged earlier about using the Linux-based TRK environment to solve this same kind of problem; it looks like this is the right Windows tool to address the same difficulty without having to venture beyond the Windows umbrella.

I’ll be working with the WinPE Boot UFD every chance I get, and keep reporting back here. If you know of any other good uses, or have an interesting and related story to tell, post a comment and I’ll put in the hopper for future coverage and inclusion, too.


January 12, 2009  10:12 PM

The MS eLearning Adventure Begins

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Today, I signed up and paid for 3 Microsoft eLearning courses

  • Course 3392: Working with Windows Vista
  • Course 5352: Fundamentals of the Windows Vista Startup Process
  • Course 5353: Fundamentals of Windows Vista File Systems

I paid about$14 for the first class, which I also completed today, and about $40 each for the other two classes, plus tax for a total outlay of just over $100. My goals are manifold here: to understand and report on how the materials are put together, how well they work, and what they cover; to get a sense of what MS thinks is important about Vista and its capabilities, and ultimately to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the various courses as to whether I think they’re worth the money or not.

Based on my exposure to the Working with Windows Vista class, which is definitely something I would recommend to my Dad (or your grandfather) if he were to get his first Vista machine, it’s about as gentle an introduction to Vista as you’re likely to find. Though I was personally bored speechless by the content (which I can map all the way back to Windows 3.0 in large part), that gave me lots of opportunities to pay attention to the user interface, the quality of the materials, the polish of the learning experience, and so forth.

I must confess I also learned several interesting and substantial things, all related to Vista’s built-in speech recognition capabilities. Simply put, it rocks! I also learned that USB audio devices can only talk to one application at a time, and the reason that my Logitech A-00008 headset wouldn’t work with MS Speed Recognition at first, even though it worked fine with Skype, was because Skype was still holding onto that hardware resource with both hands. I had to exit Skype before I could use the headset microphone to “talk” to Speech Recognition. That little detail worked out, I enjoyed the adventure into speech recognition on my own desktop. As a professional writer, though, I can indeed type faster than I can talk, and sometimes, even faster than I can think!

The class consisted of a mix of on-screen text materials with reasonably interesting layout and pacing, several animated demos of Windows technology at work (validating Vista, all kinds of animated how-to interface and operation guides, working with Windows Update, and more), lots of monkey-see, monkey-do labs with step-by-step instructions (as I already observed the Speech Recognition bit is a blast), plus interesting visual puzzles and questions to self-test at the end of each module.

Was this class worth $14? To your grandad, or my Dad, very much so. To me? If it hadn’t been for the Speech Recognition part, definitely not. To somebody who’s used other versions of Windows before, but not Vista? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how much they really understand Windows’ inner workings. MS says the class targets information workers, but I think that really means data entry folks and those who use computers to do something else for a living, not those who work with and on computers full-time.

Even so, I am convinced that there’s some real value in these MS eLearning classes, and will be digging into progressively more demanding subject matter each Monday for the next 6 weeks or so, to tell you about my experiences and the content. Please stay tuned to learn more about this. If you want to go looking for yourself, visit Microsoft Learning and check out their course catalog. Many courses for under $40, all for under $200, with lots of good cert prep content along the way.


January 9, 2009  11:37 PM

Lucky 7, or 7 Deadly Sins

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride are the seven deadly sins. How many of these will Windows 7 cause, or is it likely to be more of a “Lucky 7″ phenomenon. It’s still way too early to tell, but gosh the news and rumors about Windows 7 are flying thick and fast this week.

Here are some facts, or at least recent events:

  • Microsoft’s servers crumbled under the onslaught today as users flocked to download a free trial version of the Windows 7 operating system. Feeling lucky: try the Windows 7 Beta link. It says “coming soon” as I try it right now.
  • Recent reviews of the current Windows beta stress performance, compactness, and vast improvements over Vista. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes “Windows 7 beta 1 review” is one of the best and most thorough I’ve seen so far, and may even help to explain why so many people want to download a beta OS.
  • Ballmer’s Windows 7/Vista keynote at CES (tip: scroll past the CES CEO’s frantic cheerleading at the beginning, and maybe even skip the multi-screen warm-up before Ballmer walks on stage)
  • Microsoft and its OEMs have announced an “upgrade to Windows 7 for free” program for those who buy a Vista-equipped PC on or after July 1, 2009.
  • The Windows 7 Beta does not support upgrades for systems running Windows XP; only systems running Vista can do an upgrade install. All other Windows versions must do a “clean install”–ouch! Will this affect enterprises planning the “XP to 7 jump?” Methinks not.

Here are some rumors that have surfaced during the past few days as well:

  • Windows 7 is further along than MS will admit right now. Although the official release date is still “early in 2010″ the latest word is that if it doesn’t RTM (release to manufacturing) some time in Q3, it will do so very early in Q2.
  • Some believe that the “upgrade to 7 free” programs already announced presage RTM and release in Q3.
  • Microsoft is pushing its hopes for Windows Live technology onto the shoulders of Windows 7. See “Windows Live being targeted for Windows 7?” and “Windows LIve memo (part 2)” for some juicy and evocative details. Ballmer’s CES video actually shows itself heavily aligned to these intimations.

Where will it all lead? To Windows 7, of course. The questions are: When? Who gets it for free? How much will it cost? Will Microsoft back away from the 7 Vista SKUs it currently offers?

I can’t wait to see what will happen next. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ve got to keep my Vista desktops running. CYA!


January 7, 2009  5:45 PM

Create a bootable WinPE UFD

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Everybody knows what a UFO is, but let me remind readers that Microsoft interprets UFD as “USB Flash Drive.” Thus, what I’m about to describe is best understood as how to create a bootable Flash drive that includes the Windows Vista SP1 Pre-boot Environment (aka Window PE or even WinPE). Interestingly, if you simply troll TechNet or the Microsoft Download Center, you’ll be directed to Windows Automated Installation Kit version 1.0. But if you’re working from post-SP1 Vista (as most readers of this blog probably are), you really want Version 2.1, which is designed to support that environment. You’ll find that on the download page entitled “Automation Installation Kit (AIK) for Windows Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008” instead.

You’ll download an ISO image of the latest WAIK, which you must then burn to a DVD (it’s 1.2 GB in size and won’t fit on a CD). I used Alex Feinman’s excellent Windows Explorer add-in named ISO Recorder v3 for this (and for all my iso files) but you can use any Vista-compatible DVD burning program you like to do this job. AFter that run the file named startcd.exe on the DVD to launch WAIK. This produces the following screen:

Run the WAIK 2.1 DVD, and here's what you'll see

WAIK 2.1 welcome

Click the option that reads Windows AIK Setup to install WAIK on your current computer (it must be running Vista SP1, in case this isn’t completely obvious). By default this installs WAIK in the C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\ directory. Click your way through the installation screens to make the various WAIK tools available on your PC (on my desktop, this took about three minutes, YMMV).

Next, click Start, All Programs, Windows AIK, then finally Windows PE Tools Command Prompt. Inside the command window, type

Copype.cmd x86 C:\winpe_x86:

where x86 indicates a 32-bit environment and x64 a 64-bit environment, and C:\winpe_x86 is where the various WinPE binaries and directories will be created. After that you can copy tools and utilities from the WAIK Tools directory for your architecture (x86 for 32-bit PCs, and so forth) into the ISO subdirectory beneath C:\Winpe_x86. I usually grab Imagex.exe and the Package Manager, using these commands:


copy "c:\program files\Windows AIK\Tools\x86\imagex.exe
" c:\winpe_x86\iso\
xcopy
"c:\program files\Windows AIK\Tools\x86\Servicing" c:\winpe_x86\iso\Servicing /s

Of course, you’ll have to change the architecture designation for a 64-bit install to x64, and you’ll need to tell the CLI that the xcopy command points to a directory specification, but otherwise things should work for you, if you simply cut and paste these commands into the command window you’ll have open when you create the C:\WinPE_86 environment on your machine.

Next, you must scrub your UFD clean, mark its single partition as active, and format it for FAT32. The following sequence of commands will do the trick (replace n with the actual disk number for your UFD, use the list disk command inside diskpart to get this information:


diskpart
select disk n
clean
create partition primary size=
select partition 1
active
format fs=fat32
assign
exit

After that you need only copy the ISO subdirectory from your C: drive to the drive letter for your UFD to make your bootable image thereupon. The following xcopy command will work (just be sure to correct the drive letter at the end of that command string):

xcopy c:\winpe_x86\iso\*.* /s /e /f i:\

As you work with this boot image, you’ll probably find other tools you want to add to your toolbox. You must copy them into the ISO subdirectory on your C: drive (along with any other supporting files they might need), then reformat the UFD, and repeat the preceding xcopy command to make them available when you boot from that drive.


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