Windows Unattended Installation
By Michael Guyett
Nothing is more fun than installing Windows on a computer. Sitting there watching the screen waiting for the install program to prompt you for all the information it needs from you. A typical installation usually takes around 30 to 45 minutes. Now imagine you need to do four installations, now ten, now twenty. You can see where this could take a long time. If you charge per hour, 20 computers could cost your clients a pretty penny.
Let's say you need to get Windows installed on a machine in a remote location, and there aren't any tech savvy users to do the process for you. This is where unattended installations come in handy. All you have to do is create an answer file. Then you can email the file to them, or even just snail-mail them a floppy with it, and presto, your user can do the install without knowing anything about the computer. Luckily for us, Microsoft was kind enough to put in tools to help you automate the process.
The first tool you need is setupmgr.exe. This is the program that lets you answer all of the installation questions ahead of time, and save them to a disk. This is the most import part of the unattended installation.
Setupmgr.exe is found on the Windows Install CD. It is located in Support\Tools\DEPLOY.CAB open this file up, select all the files, then go to the file menu and choose extract. Extract the files to a directory where you can find them, I usually use c:\Windows\Deploytools\
Now run setupmgr.exe. Choose 'Create a new answer file'. Now choose: Windows X Unattended Answer file. You might have to choose what type of computer your setting up, for example, Windows 2000 setupmgr will ask if you are setting up 2000 Pro, or 2000 server. Next you get to choose the type of unattended installation, for our purposes, we're going to choose fully unattended.
Now just follow the wizard, answering the questions as you want them to be answered. Finish the wizard and save the file. If the wizard asked for a CD-Key, you just need to rename the answer file to winnt.sif. If you didn't get asked to put in the CD-Key you need to do so manually. Open the answer file in notepad (I believe it is unattend.txt). Under [UserData] put in the following header and key:
Replace the x's with your actual CD-Key. Now save the file as winnt.sif
Clue #1: When you extracted the files from Deploy.Cab it created a "unattend.doc" file. In this document are all the additional options you can include in the winnt.sif file. If you need something special done on install, you might take a look and see if it too can be automated.
Clue #2: If you saved the file as the default option "unattend.txt" you will need to rename the file. Make sure in Tools>Folder Options>View you have unchecked the option "Hide extensions for known file types" or else you could end up saving your file as "winnt.sif.txt" on accident!
Now copy the winnt.sif file to a floppy, boot the computer from the Windows CD and put the floppy in the drive only after the computer begins booting from the CD. Windows Setup will automatically look for the file on the floppy.
Tada! You have successfully automated your installation of Windows. Look at our sample Winnt.sif answer file.
Coming soon: Part 2, The Remote Installation Service
Article last reviewed: 07/04/2003