Product Reviews

Create, Tune, and Manage Software Installations for Windows

Help is on the way for the harassed system administrator.

When I first had to deal with "packaging" a program to install on several PCs, the process was simple: get it working on one machine, zip the directory it was installed in, and then save it to a couple of floppies. Installation was just as easy: pop the first floppy in the PC you were installing to, and execute the self-extracting zip file. Of course, this was back in the days of DOS, when the closest things to a registry were the config.sys and autoexec.bat files. I didn't have to worry about registering DLLs or making sure that I didn't overwrite shared system files with older or incompatible versions.

These days, ensuring that a Windows application is correctly installed and configured on all the PCs in the organization can be a daunting task indeed. Microsoft tried to make things "easier" with their Windows Installer technology, but as is the case with many a Microsoft SDK, this is not a solution for the faint of heart. Enter InstallShield Admin Studio 2.0.

Based on the venerable InstallShield Developer installation scripting tool, the Admin Studio promises to make the system administrator's task of tweaking Windows application installation packages a lot easier. With its intuitive interface, well-documented help screens, and collection of wizards to do just about everything, it lives up to that promise.

The InstallShield Admin Studio offers a comprehensive environment that allows you to create, modify, fine tune, and test your installation automation efforts. It's designed to work with Microsoft's MSI (Microsoft Installer) standard. You can repackage traditional setups into .msi files and you can open existing .msi files and modify them as you please. If you are the adventurous sort, you can also use the product to create .msi files from scratch. Finally, Admin Studio includes a tool you can use for conflict detection and correction; a handy feature, especially if you need to support different platforms.

As its name implies, Admin Studio is actually a collection of several separate applications, "integrated" into one software bundle. There are four components:

  • Repackager—Create .msi packages from traditional setup programs.
  • Author—Create new .msi files from scratch, and to enhance repackaged setups created with Repackager.
  • ConflictSolver—Identify and resolve application conflicts.
  • Tuner—Customize setups.

Although the various components share a common look and feel, they lack some key integration features. For example, you can't launch one of these tools from within another. Even so, Admin Studio provides a wealth of functionality-if you know how to make use of it. I strongly recommend that you go through the included tutorial. It's well worth the half hour or so you'll spend on it.

Installation of this product was effortless (a nice touch, since the very product was used to create the installation package) and quick. My only beef is with the initial setup screen; it took me a couple of moments to figure out what I actually needed to click to start the installation. But I did like the fact that I didn't have to reboot my system to complete the install process.

When the installation finished I immediately launched the program. The main interface was easy to follow and navigate, and I liked the tips that were displayed. Launching the various tools was easy, although I did encounter a runtime error with the Author program. Dismissing the error seemed to work, as the program came up just fine after that, but as I continued to try and work with the Author program, I encountered more runtime errors.

I called InstallShield tech support, and they gave me the standard, "Re-install the program and that should take care of it." So I did that, and sure enough, I encountered the same problem. So I called them again, and they had me email them a particular log file specific to the Author program. After reviewing the log file they identified the problem (something about the combination of certain versions of Windows 2000 and IE), sent me some replacement files, and that took care of things. Be sure to thank me-my frustrations provided fodder for their latest Knowledge Base article.

The main InstallShield interface provides a launching pad for each of the included applications as well as tips on effectively using them002E. (Click image to view larger version.)

The Repackager program allows you to create a working .msi file from a "regular" program (that is, one without an .msi file already available) with little more effort than clicking through a few wizard screens. I tried it out on a VB app I threw together, and it worked like a charm. I simply launched the Repackager program via a network share from a clean workstation machine (as recommended by one of the program's tips), ran the install of the program I was configuring, and then let InstallShield do the rest.

I copied the resulting .msi package to another machine and ran it. My little VB app installed quite nicely, thank you very much! I also used the Repackager on an off-the-shelf application. The process was pretty painless, but it took what seemed like forever for the analysis phases to complete. This isn't InstallShield's fault-you can thank Microsoft for having such a humongous registry.

You see, Repackager first scans your entire system, taking a "snapshot" of the registry and other system information. Then you run the regular setup program for your application. Repackager then runs the analysis process again, and makes a note of what changed. Using this information, it finally creates your .msi file.

Most system administrators are not software developers, and therefore don't have the component-level application knowledge required to properly use the Author tool. Designed to create .msi files from scratch, this tool is not for the faint of heart. The Project Wizard does make the task a little less daunting, and what the program calls "Setup Best Practices" are viewable from many of the screens. The tool also offers a wizard to import Visual Basic projects and turn them into full-featured .msi packages.

As I played with Author, I fell in love with its wizard for importing VB projects. I simply pointed the wizard to one of my Visual Basic projects (one that had not even been compiled yet!), answered a few easy questions, and presto! I was the proud owner of one nice little .msi package.

To realize the full benefit of this tool you need to spend a lot of time with it. But it's worth it, as this component lives up to its name. ConflictSolver uses a database, either Access or SQL Server, to keep track of everything. You don't have to have Microsoft Access to use the program, but if you want to use SQL as your database you need to supply the Server.

You start by importing an .msi file. After you tell ConflictSolver which .msi file you want to import, it performs a validation on the file, producing a listing of errors, warnings and informational messages. You can also run the validation process on its own. I validated webfldrs.msi, a Microsoft-provided application that configures Office to save documents directly to FrontPage-enabled web servers. ConflictSolver found 89 warnings and 12 errors.

Next, you can use a variety of methods to resolve any conflicts. The easiest approach is to use the Conflict Wizard. It takes your .msi file and compares it to packages already in the database. Obviously, adding more applications to the database will increase the tool's ability to resolve potential conflicts. The sample database that ships with the program includes Office 2000, McAfee VirusScan, WinZip, and InstallShield's own Tuner. Once the conflicts have been identified, you can use the Resolution Wizard to fix them.

What's the first thing you do after installing Office on a machine? Disable that obnoxious paper clip! Most system administrators have learned that they can disable this feature, and tweak other aspects of Office, before installation by using Office's customization tools. Wouldn't it be great to be able to do this with other applications? Tuner makes it possible.

Tuner works with transform files. These files (with an .mst extension) are used in conjunction with msi files. A transform file contains specific information about which features should be installed, which directories should be used, and other installation-specific details. Many off-the-shelf applications include transform files for certain situations. For example, the Microsoft Office resource Kit includes an .mst file that must be used to properly install Office on a Windows 2000 server running Terminal Services.

To create a new transform file, you first tell Tuner which .msi file to use. Tuner loads the file, then starts you on a six-step process to create the .mst file. As you progress through each step, Tuner prompts you for whatever information it needs. The last step is to tell Tuner how to implement the new transform package: as a share point on a network server, as a standalone setup, or by using Microsoft's System Management Server.

Do You Need This Program?
AdminStudio is not a program that you get up to speed with in a day or two. You'll need to spend some quality time with the program before you can get much real world use out of it. If you're supporting a handful of PCs, it's probably not worth the effort. But if you find yourself installing and configuring applications over and over again, AdminStudio just may be what you need.

About the Author

Kevin Kohut has been involved with information technology in some form or another for over 18 years, and has a strong business management background as well. As a computer consultant, Kevin has helped both small businesses and large corporations realize the benefits of applying technology to their business needs.

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