Imaging and Desktop Engineering

Introducing the Tools

By Tony Northrup

The following sections describe the core imaging tools for Windows Vista: ImageX and Windows SIM. ImageX is the imaging tool that you use to capture, apply, and manage image files. Windows SIM is the tool you use to create distribution shares, create and edit Unattend.xml files, and manage components and packages in an image. For more information about each of these tools, see the Windows AIK.


The Windows Vista tool you use to work with .wim image files is ImageX. ImageX is an easy-to-use command-line utility that you run from Windows PE. You use ImageX to create and manage .wim image files. With ImageX, you can capture images and apply them to destination computers' hard disks. You can mount .wim image files as folders (Windows PE .wim files are not mountable), enabling you to edit images offline. ImageX addresses the challenges that companies faced when using sector-based imaging formats or the MS-DOS XCopy command to copy an installation of Windows onto new hardware:

  • Sector-based imaging requires that the destination computer use the same Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) as the master computer.
  • Sector-based imaging requires that the destination computer boot from the same type of mass-storage controller as the master computer.
  • Sector-based imaging destroys the existing contents of the destination computer's hard disk, complicating migration scenarios.
  • Sector-based imaging duplicates the hard drive exactly; therefore, the image can deploy only to partitions that are the same type and at least as large as the source partition on the master computer.
  • Sector-based imaging does not enable direct modification of image-file contents.

The limitations of sector-based imaging led Microsoft to develop ImageX and the accompanying .wim image file format and WIMGAPI (see the "Windows Imaging File Format" section). You can use ImageX to create an image, modify the image without going through the extraction and re-creation process, and deploy the image to your environment—all using the same tool.

Because ImageX works at the file level, it provides numerous benefits. First, it provides more flexibility and control over your images. For example, you can mount an image on to a folder, and then add files to, copy files from, and delete files from the image using a file-management tool such as Windows Explorer. ImageX enables quicker deployment of images and more rapid installations. The file-based image format also lets you deploy images nondestructively so that ImageX does not erase the destination computer's hard disk.

ImageX also supports highly compressed images. First, .wim files support single instancing: file data is stored separately from path information. This enables .wim to store duplicate files that exist in multiple paths one time. Second, .wim supports two compression algorithms—fast and maximum—which gives you control over the size of your images and the time required to capture and deploy them.

The Windows AIK contains a detailed description of each ImageX command-line option. For more information about using ImageX, see the "ImageX Technical Reference" topic in the Windows AIK.

Windows System Image Manager

Although ImageX is the tool you use to create, capture, and apply image files, Windows SIM is the tool you use to manage an image file's contents. These contents include components, packages, and answer file settings (Unattend.xml). Windows Vista Setup uses Unattend.xml to configure and customize the default Windows Vista installation for all configuration passes. For instance, you can customize Microsoft Internet Explorer, configure the Windows Firewall, and specify the hard disk configuration. Windows SIM enables you to customize Windows Vista in the following ways and more:

  • Install third-party applications.
  • Customize Windows Vista by creating answer files (Unattend.xml).
  • Apply language packs, service packs, and updates to an image.
  • Add device drivers to an image.

With earlier versions of Windows, you almost always had to manually edit answer file settings. The Windows Vista answer file (Unattend.xml) is based on XML and is far too complex to edit manually, however. So you must use Windows SIM to edit Windows Vista answer files. Figure 3 shows an answer file in Windows SIM. In the Answer File pane, you see the AutoLogon container with its settings in the Properties pane.

Figure 3: Answer File Settings

As Figure 3 shows, Windows SIM displays five panes:

Distribution Share. The Distribution Share pane displays a local or networked distribution share. A distribution share contains device drivers, updates, or other applications that are installed during setup. When you add items in the distribution share to an answer file, the path to the files (e.g., applications, drivers) are included in the answer file. During installation, Setup uses this path to install the additional applications and device drivers.

Windows Image. The Windows Image pane displays the components, settings, and packages that exist in a .wim catalog.

Answer File. The Answer File pane displays the setup configuration passes, the settings to apply in each pass, and the packages to install. You can open and edit an existing answer file, validate the settings in an answer file against a .wim, or create a new answer file. Settings in an answer file are organized into two sections.

Components. The Components section of an answer file contains the component settings that you want to apply during setup. Windows SIM organizes components into different configuration passes: windowsPE, offlineServicing, generalize, specialize, auditSystem, auditUser, and oobeSystem. Setup can apply settings during one or more passes. If a setting can be applied in more than one configuration pass, you can choose the pass in which you want to apply the setting.

Packages. Microsoft uses packages to distribute software updates, service packs, and language packs.

Properties. The Properties pane displays the properties for a selected component, element, or package. In the Properties pane, you can modify the values for a setting in an answer file.

Messages. The Messages pane displays log information from Windows SIM tool.

You can install Windows SIM on Windows Vista, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, and Microsoft Windows XP Professional Edition. To install Windows SIM on Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional Edition, you must first install the Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 and MSXML, both of which are included in the Windows AIK.