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

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