GuidesSysdiff - Windows NT/2000's secret deployment tool

Sysdiff – Windows NT/2000’s secret deployment tool

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Sean Stecker

In networked environments of
over 10 machines, software deployment by hand has become a nightmare. 
As software has become more complicated, so to have the installation
routines.  From specific
installation directories, to component options, to bundled add on applications,
sometimes installing the software with the same options on all of your machines
is more difficult than actually using it.  Not
to mention the 15 different tech support personnel who install it in their own
“special way”.  System reliability and consistent troubleshooting demand a
“cookie cutter” like deployment of all software.

In networked environments of over 10 machines, software deployment by hand has become a nightmare. As software has become more complicated, so to have the installation routines. From specific installation directories, to component options, to bundled add on applications, sometimes installing the software with the same options on all of your machines is more difficult than actually using it.

There are many third party
utilities on the market today that allow you to package and deploy Windows
NT/2000 based applications.  A great
deal of them allow after packaging manipulating of files and command lines to be
included within the package. 

As many of us have found,
sometimes these third party applications can sometimes give us too much leeway,
causing us to add too much fluff to what started out to be a “simple
install”.  Inevitably causing the
install to fail, especially in an automated installation environment such as SMS. 
Microsoft Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000 Resource Kits include a utility
called Sysdiff.exe that allows a before and after “snapshot” of your
machine, to catch those installation files, and bundles them nicely into a
simple installation file. 


Version control

Please note that packages
created under Windows NT 4 using Sysdiff cannot be installed to a Windows 2000
machine, and vice versa.  Furthermore,
packages created using either version cannot be installed on a Windows 95, 98,
or ME machine.


Sysdiff components 





Copy sysdiff.exe and
sysdiff.inf from your Resource Kit directory into the winnt directory on your
test/deployment machine.  (Note: 

It may be a good idea to bundle these files into your standard image so
that no matter which machine you use to create software packages, you will
always have this tool available.  See
my article Using Sysprep to deploy Windows 2000 Professional to see how to
incorporate extra files into your standard image.)  

You can edit sysdiff.inf to
further exclude certain directories from the discovery snapshots. 
I added the directory *:winntms to exclude the local SMS directories on
our workstations.  This directory
and its files are updated constantly by SMS. 

If you use SMS in your organization, you may want to do the same.


How it works 

Sysdiff is run on your test
machine before your intended software is installed. 
This “snapshot” makes a record of all the files and registry hives on
your workstation, and records their current state. 

This will be compared to your “after snapshot” to determine the files
needed for your installation.  Your
“after snapshot” is the actual file that will be applied to your target
machines to install the intended software. 
All files are appended with the .img extension to indicate a sysdiff
image file.  

From a command line, run the
before snapshot: 

Sysdiff /snap before.img 

This will open the sysdiff
window, and begin its inventory of your machines current state. 
We have specified the file “before.img” to hold the contents of our

Next, install your
application according to the manufacturer’s instructions, or your environments
specific needs. 

Again, from a command line,
run the after snapshot: 

Sysdiff /diff before.img

The sysdiff window opens
again, this time comparing the updated state of your machine in relation to
it’s previous state as indicated in “before.img”.  Those differences are noted and then ported to the file
“application.img” (or whatever you have named it). 


Sysdiff command options 

/snap – used to create the
“before snapshot” 

/diff – used to create the
“after snapshot” 

/apply – used to apply the
application image to the system

– applies software file changes to the default user profile so software will
be applied for all users.

– runs the apply mode quietly (errors that are generated are also not


/dump – outputs the
contents of sysdiff package to human readable format 

/inf – applies sysdiff
packages to a deployment/distribution directory and generates
the $OEM$ directory tree.  Best
used with unattended setup of the Operating System. 


Preparing for deployment 

You are now ready to build
your application directory on your network share.  Move the file “application.img” from your test
workstation to your network shares specific application directory (ie.
Acrobat4).  Also copy the files
sysdiff.exe and sysdiff.inf to this directory. 
In this example, we will be creating the installation batch file for the
Acrobat Reader 4.0 package.  

We must now create our
installation batch file that will apply this application image to your
workstation.  In this example, we
will name our batch file “install.bat” 

Contents of install.bat: 

@echo OFF

/apply /m dc1dist$acrobat4acrobat4.img  



We now have a very solid,
reliable, completely hands free installation of our application. 
You can further reduce the chance of erroneous installations by
restricting your support personnel’s access to your software media. 
With no options to misconfigure, you can assure yourself of repeatable,
reliable installations throughout your organization. 


Sysdiff documentation states
that sysdiff is used to apply very small applications. 
I have successfully created sysdiff packages up to 784 Mb in size. 
In my book, that is NOT a small application. 
Acrobat Reader 4.0 is approximately 5 Mb. 

Utilizing sysdiff packages in
an SMS environment is extremely beneficial as well. 
With it’s relatively simple procedures and installation process,
failure rate on SMS packages created with Sysprep are much lower than those
created with some third party applications. 

It all goes back to the old saying “The more moving parts it has, the
more likely it is to break”. 


Known limitations 

You knew there had to be a catch didn’t you? 
Here are some limitations that I have run across with Sysdiff: 

  1. Sysdiff
    has a difficult time with applications that require a restart. 
    Some will work, others will not. 
    Experiment.  I have had
    success with performing the “after snapshot” just prior to the reboot,
    then incorporating the restart into my sysdiff installation.
  1. Sysdiff
    cannot be used to install Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. 

    There are some very useful scripts for unattended installation of
    Internet Explorer using SMS.  I
    use it in my organization and I swear by it.

  1. Sysdiff
    cannot be used to install Office 2000 products. 
    Or Office 97 for that matter.  But
    I used it to create our Project 98 image, go figure.
  1. Sysdiff
    has problems with Windows Installer based applications. 
    I have created ONE successful package that was based on Windows
    Installer technology.  I have
    tried MANY others and failed.

There may be others that I
have not run across.  If you find
other limitations, let me know and I will update this article to reflect them. 



Sysdiff can be used to
effectively deploy the majority of your company’s software applications on
Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000.  It’s
ease of use and simplistic nature make it an easy choice to assist you with your
deployments.  As an IT Professional,
it is your job to reduce the amount of support and downtime your organization. 
Repeatable software installation is one area that will allow you to trim
your support costs immediately.

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