Windows PE

Earlier this year Microsoft discontinued licensing MS-DOS (finally!). Let’s see: MS-DOS 1.0 came out in 1981 and now it’s 2005. 24 years for an operating system isn’t bad! Yet even after the pulling of support for MS-DOS it still is very much with us. I use a MS-DOS network bootdisk every day at work to pull down Ghost images from the server. At my last work place we were still using a DOS program for scheduling surgeries based on the old BTREIVE database technology and a DOS program to fill prescriptions in the pharmacy. Just a few weeks ago I was helping a user troubleshoot a program running in GWBASIC, an old DOS based 16-bit BASIC compiler!

Upon the arrival of Windows 2000 we had the introduction of NTFS to the masses. DOS doesn’t do NTFS without special software like NTFSDOS. Unless you pony up money for the commercial version of NTFSDOS the only thing you can do is read files from DOS. This is a serious drawback for trying to do troubleshooting and recovery data from NT systems. Microsoft’s solution: Windows PE.

What is Windows PE? Well, here’s what Microsoft says: “Microsoft® Windows® Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) is a tool based on Microsoft Windows XP Professional that allows IT staff to build custom solutions that speed up deployment through automation so they spend less time and effort keeping desktops updated. Windows PE can run Windows setup, scripts, and imaging applications. Enterprise Agreement (EA) and Software Assurance Membership (SAM) customers received Windows PE in their October 2002 updates, and it will continue to be offered as a benefit of Software Assurance.”

Well, that isn’t very descriptive. Essentially Windows PE is a modified version of Windows XP that is designed to run from a CD-ROM disc, that is, a read-only media. As you can see above, if you aren’t a big cheese with an EA agreement you don’t get to play with Windows PE. However, if you compare the files from the Windows PE to the Windows XP Pro CD you will find most of the files are identical.

That is when Bart Lagerweij made something called the PE Builder. This allows you to make your own version of Windows PE called BartPE (BartPE is very much like Windows PE, but for legal reasons Bart isn’t able to say that). BartPE is very cool! It supports many plugins for different applications. Here’s a cool one as an example: Key Finder PE. You can boot from a Windows PE CD, run this program under Windows PE and it will give you the machine’s product key! This could be useful say if a hard drive crashed and your customer didn’t have their original key handy.

There is a complete discussion forum dedicated to BartPE over at 911CD. This technology will be very big in Windows Vista replacing what we now know as the Recovery Console. So make yourself very comfortable with technology.

– Soli Deo Gloria

To err is human…

Back in August of 1998 on a Friday night in a little Best Buy store I got my first work order. It was to install a ZIP drive into an IBM Aptiva. Having played with computers as a hobby I thought this was going to be a snap. I attempt to open the case and no go. I kept on pulling up and forward on the case and it would just not go! I headed to the Internet and found out that there was a pull release switch under the front bezel. With the case off I then found the drive bay being covered by a metal blank. Taking a pair of pliers I yanked and twisted that piece of thin metal to a certain point, then I started to use my fingers. You guessed it: slice of a finger! I was bleeding all over the customer’s computer! By this time it was near closing time and I was very frustrated at this point. I finally installed the ZIP drive, tested with a ZIP disk and threw it back together (wiping all the blood off of it of course).

A few months later I had become good friends with my boss and he told me he thought I was a idiot at first. “Why?”, I asked. “That first installation on your first day you did was really bad. You forgot to remove the front cover on the drive bay where the ZIP drive was sitting and you disconnected the floppy drive in the process! I thought you were a complete idiot.” Mea culpa! I had rushed the job: testing the ZIP drive without the front bezel on and then just slapping it together and throwing it back on the shelf. Thank goodness my career was not judged on just that one day. All be told, I’ve cracked motherboards, destroyed data and even blew up a NT 4.0 server acting as a print router (thankfully not on the same day)!

All these incidents are great because I learned from them. Fixing computers is almost like a game of chess: everyone understands all the basic rules of chess, but not everyone is a grandmaster. The more chess games you play the better you become. You might favor one opening and your opponent another. You might have all the chess knowledge in the world, but if you act impulsively you will likely lose to a less experienced player. You will make mistakes whether you like it or not.

Case in point: when faced with a crashing system in the past I would usually just rebuild a system from scratch. This might be OK in the consumer arena where people back up their data religiously to CD-Rs and other removable devices (can you feel the sarcasm?). However, that wouldn’t fly on the VP’s computer who stores all of his personal documents and kids pictures on his laptop. Pretend the computer is your opponent. You don’t want to be checkmated or stalemated, you want to win! How do you do it?

First, ask the right questions to the user:

* When did this start happening?
* Has anything changed within the last X days?
* How often do you do this function?

Then, start the troubleshooting:

* Check the event logs (assuming a NT system). Log anything suspicious.
* If you get an error message log that.
* Check startup entries using Autoruns and the processes running by using Process Explorer.

Now, research the problem:

* Input the error code or problem into Google. You’ll be surprised the wealth of information out there!

* Check Microsoft’s Knowledgebase. People all over the world contact Microsoft for tech support and you will surprised at the amount of knowledge there.

* If you still cannot figure the problem out post what you are experiencing on Experts Exchange or USENET.

You can post on USENET via Google Groups. USENET is a world wide messaging state dating back to the early 90’s. Just do a general search on what you are having a problem with (e.g. input “Outlook 98” if you were having problems with Outlook 98) to pinpoint the news group (message board) that handles such problems and post your problem there. For example: I like to frequent the news group microsoft.public.win2000.setup_deployment. This news group focuses specifically on deployment problems with Windows 2000. Not Windows 9x, not NT 4.0 or XP: just Windows 2000. The people that frequent this news group are usually very familiar with the subject at hand and this is usually the case for many other news groups. There are over 40,000 USENET news groups relating to subjects such as computers, tv sitcoms, bands, politics and anything else you can dream of. Google Groups has archived USENET messages all the way back to the early 90’s, so this is another great place to search for conversations on specific error messages and problems.

Finally, implement the solution. Sometimes people will give you 6 or 7 possible solutions. This might require more research on your part. If the problem is happening on Windows 2000 and someone gives you a fix for Windows NT 4.0 you need to realize that will probably not fix your specific problem.

How do you become a better PC Technician? Here’s what I think:

1. Experience: the more you play with computers the better you get.

2. Willingness to learn: if you think you know it all you will fail miserably.

3. Thirst for knowledge: you might think this is the same as #2, but it is not. I may be willing to learn something new, but not ambitious to go out and learn about other new things.

4. Know your limitations: Clint Eastwood said it so it must be true. Seriously, some problems go past your knowledge. In those cases you have to park your ego and go ask for someone else’s help.

– Soli Deo Gloria