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Getting Certified: Things have really changed!

This article was originally published to The Canadian IT Pro Connection.Boy has it been an exciting year… Microsoft’s busiest release year ever!  On the IT Pro side we have System Center 2012 (a single product now, but truly seven distinct products for managing your environment!), Windows Server 2012, Windows 8… we have Windows Azure (which for the first time is really beginning to show true relevance to the IT Pro and not just the devs), and of course the new Office (both on-prem with Office 2013, and in the cloud with Office 365).  There is of course Windows Phone 8, Windows Intune, and the list goes on.

With all of these new versions out many IT Pros will be looking to update their certifications to remain current, while many more will be looking for their first certs.  For the first time in six years Microsoft Learning has completely changed the way you will be looking at certifications going forward.  If you are like me (and so many others) and do want to get certified in the latest and greatest, then you will need to know what is out there, and how certifications have changed with the newest product cycles.

Solutions-based Certifications

In the last few years Microsoft Learning focused on what they referred to as task-based certifications (MCTS) and job-based certifications (MCITP).  However IT Pros started to see more and more components in learning and exams that were not actually in the product – so for example an exam on Windows Server might have included a question on the Security Compliance Manager (SCM) and System Center.  Although it made sense to the SMEs writing the questions, the unprepared found themselves facing questions that they couldn’t answer, and a resounding chorus of ‘we didn’t realize we would be tested on that!’ was to be heard across the blogosphere.

This year the new certifications have been revamped to be solutions-based.  That means you are not focusing on a role or a product, but rather on the solution as a whole, which will very often include technologies not included in the product, but that are complimentary to it.  Microsoft’s Solution Accelerators are a good example of this.  The Solution Accelerators are a series of free tools available from Microsoft and include the Security Compliance Manager, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, the Microsoft Virtual Machine Conversion toolkit, and others that are free downloads and may not be required knowledge to everyone, but every IT Pro should know about them because they really do come in handy.

Additionally you are going to see a strong interdependence between Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012, and Windows 8.  After all very few companies have only one of these, and in fact in any organization of a certain size or larger it would be rare to not find all three.

Of course it is also likely you are going to see questions that ask about previous versions of all of these technologies. ‘Your company has 25 servers running Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition and 5000 desktops running Windows Vista Business Edition…’ sorts of questions will not be uncommon.  This will make some of us scour our archived memory banks for the differences between editions, and may seem unfair to IT Pros who are new to the industry.  Remember that every certification exam and course lists recommended prerequisites for candidates, and 2-3 years of experience is not an uncommon one.  To that I remind you that you do not need a perfect score to pass the exams… do your best!

What was old is new again

In 2005 Microsoft announced the retirement of the MCSE and MCSA certifications, to be replaced by the MCTS/MCITP certs.  During a recent keynote delivered by a guest speaker from Redmond I heard him say that this was actually Canada’s fault, and unfortunately he is partly right.  The Quebec Order of Engineers won their lawsuit regarding the usage of the word engineer in the cert.  While it may have made their lives better, it complicated the certification landscape for a lot of IT Pros and hiring managers who never quite got used to the new model.

SolAssoc_WinServ2012_Blk SolExp_PvtCloud_Blk

In April, 2012 Microsoft Learning announced that things were changing again… we would again be able to earn our MCSA and MCSE certs, but they would now stand for Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.  In fact they thought it was a good enough idea that although they were intended as next-generation certs, they would be ported backward one generation… if you were/are an MCITP: Server Administrator or MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008 you immediately became an MCSA: Windows Server 2008.  You were also immediately only two exams away from earning your MCSE: Private Cloud certification.

associate-blueMicrosoft Learning bills the MCSA certification as ‘the foundation for your professional career.’  I agree with this because it is the basic cert on the operating system, and from there you can jump into the next stage (there are several MCSE programs available, all of which require the base MCSA to achieve).

Of course now that Windows Server 2012 has been released, so too has the new certifications.  If you want to earn your MCSA: Windows Server 2012 credentials then you are only three exams away:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-410 Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012 20410
70-411 Administering Windows Server 2012 20411
70-412 Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services 20412

Instead of taking all three of these exams, you could choose to upgrade any of the following certifications with a single upgrade exam:

MCSA: Windows Server 2008

MCITP: Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2

MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010

MCITP: Lync Server Administrator 2010

MCITP: SharePoint Administrator 2010

MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7

The upgrade exam is called Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012, and is exam number 70-417.

expert-blueMicrosoft Learning calls the MCSE certification ‘the globally recognized standard for IT professionals.’  It demonstrates that you know more than just the basics, but that you are an expert in the technologies required to provide a complete solution for your environment.

The first IT Pro MCSE cert announced focused on virtualization and the System Center 2012 product.  Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Private Cloud launched first because System Center 2012 was released earlier in the year, and the Private Cloud cert could use either Server 2012 or Server 2008 certs as its baseline.  If you already have a qualifying MCSA certification (such as the one outlined above, or the MCSA: Windows Server 2008) then you would only require two more exams to complete your MCSE:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 10750
70-247 Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 10751
70-6591 TS Windows Server 2008: Server Virtualization 10215A

1This exam can be taken instead of exam 70-247 until January 31, 2013 to count towards the Private Cloud certification.

The next new-generation MCSE cert for the IT Pro is theMCSE: Server Infrastructure.  Like the first one the basis for this cert is the MCSA.  Unlike the Private Cloud cert, the MCSA must be in Windows Server 2012.  The required additional exams are:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-413 Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure 20413
70-414 Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure 20414

Are you starting to worry that your current Server 2008 certs aren’t helping you toward your goal?  Never fear… the following certifications are upgradeable by taking three exams:

MCITP: Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2

MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010

MCITP: Lync Server Administrator 2010

MCITP: SharePoint Administrator 2010

MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7

Which exams?  I’m glad you asked.  The upgrading IT Pro needs to take:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-413 Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure 20413
70-414 Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure 20414
70-417 Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012 20417

In other words, you will be upgrading your pre-existing cert to MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and then taking the remaining exams required for the MCSE.

The third MCSE that will be of interest to IT Pros is the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructurecert.  As with the others it requires the candidate to earn the MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and then take the following exams:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-415 Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure 20415
70-416 Implementing Desktop Application Environments 20416

If you previously held the MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator 7 then you can upgrade by taking the following exams:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-415 Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure 20415
70-416 Implementing Desktop Application Environments 20416
70-417 Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012 20417

There are actually five other MCSE paths, which are:

MCSE: Messaging

MCSE: Data Platform

MCSE: Business Intelligence

MCSE: Communication

MCSE: SharePoint

That I do not discuss these is not a judgment, simply they are outside of my wheelhouse as it were… If you would like more information about any of these, visit Microsoft Learning’s MCSE landing page.

The Unfinished Pyramid

You will notice that the MCSA and MCSE pyramids that we use are progressive… the MCSA has one level finished, the MCSE has two levels finished.  That is because there is another level of certifications above these, which is now called the Microsoft Certified Solutions Master.  This is the highest certification that Microsoft Learning offers, and only a few individuals will qualify.  It is a real commitment but if you think you are ready for it, I would love to point you in the right direction.  Personally I am happy with my MCSE: PC and don’t expect I will ever be a Master.

At present there are four MCSM tracks:

MCSM: SharePoint

MCSM: Data Platform

MCSM: Communication

MCSM: Messaging

It should be noted that of these only the MCSM: Data Platform is currently available; the others will be made available in 2013.

Also at the very top of the pyramid there is one more level – the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA).  There are currently four MCA certifications:

MCA: Microsoft Exchange Server

MCA: Microsoft SharePoint Server

MCA: Microsoft SQL Server

MCA: Windows Server: Directory

Achieving the MCA requires a lot more than just exams.  It is a long and grueling process which in the end will likely leave you drained, but with the highest certification that Microsoft offers.

I should tell you that these last two senior certs are not for most people.  They are only for the very top professionals with in-depth experience designing and delivering IT solutions for enterprise customers, and even then only for those who possess the technical and leadership skills that truly differentiate them from their peers.

Keep it up!

Several years ago Microsoft Learning tried to retire older MCSEs – Windows NT and such.  They were unsuccessful because had they done so they would have breached the terms of the original certification.  In other words, because they never told candidates in advance that they would retire them, they couldn’t retire them.  It is not uncommon for me to hear from someone who is an MCSE, but they haven’t taken an exam since the 1990s.  In fact the logo for MCSE on Windows NT is the same logo as for MCSE on Windows Server 2003, and those MCSEs will be allowed to use that logo forever.

In 2006 they made it a little easier to differentiate.  Not only would certifications be by technology (MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008) but they would, in theory, be retired with support for that technology.  So an MCITP on Windows Vista would not be able to use the cert past a certain date.  Unfortunately I found that people did not refer to their entire cert, they would simply say that ‘I am an MCITP!’  In other words, without some clarifying it was pretty difficult to determine what technology they really knew.  Additionally it is not uncommon for some pros to have several MCITP certs, making it quite difficult to list on a business card or e-mail signature.

Now Microsoft Learning has really made an improvement to this issue.  The new MCSE certifications will require that you show continued understanding of the latest versions of the technology area by taking a recertification exam every three years.  While there was some talk of this with the MCITP program it did not come to fruition.  Today however this recertification requirement is clearly outlined on the MCSE pages.

While recertifying may seem like a bother for some, as we discussed earlier it is something we choose to do every three years to remain current anyways.  For those of us who do want to always remain current it is nice to know that we don’t have to start from scratch with every new product cycle.  For those for whom remaining current is not as important they will always be able to say ‘I was an MCSE, but I let my certs lapse.’  It shows that they do know the technology, just not necessarily the most current version,  This should be sufficient for a lot of people who often tell me ‘my clients don’t need the latest, and are not going to upgrade every three years!’

What About Small Biz?

I spent several years specializing in SMBs.  The first time I took a certification exam I remember coming out of it upset about questions that started ‘You are the administrator for a company with 500 server…’  No I am not!  At the time I couldn’t even fathom what that would be like.  So when Microsoft Learning started writing exams for SBS I was glad not because I wanted to limit myself (I didn’t, and am glad of that today) but because I knew that there are lots of IT Pros out there who do work exclusively on smaller networks.

I do not know what will become of SMB-focused certifications now that Windows Small Business Server 2011 is to be the last SBS release.  I do not have any insight into whether there will be exams around Windows Server Essentials, but could envision a cert around the tying of that product with Windows 8 and Office 365.  I have not been asked, but it would make sense.  However I have heard from a lot of SMB IT Pros that certifications are not as important to them and their clients as we feel they are in the enterprise, and I accept that; the needs of the larger do not necessarily align with the needs of the smaller.  However only time will tell if Microsoft Learning will address this market.

So in the end, should I get certified?

I have long been of the opinion that certifications are key for any IT Professional who is serious about his or her profession.  It shows that they have the respect for their profession to be willing to prove not that they know how to do it, but to do IT right.  Certifications are not for IT hobbyists, or people who dabble.  They are for the professionals who earn their living in IT, and who wish to differentiate themselves from other candidates for jobs, contracts, or promotions.

Whether you have been working in IT for years, or are fresh out of school and looking to embark on a career in IT, there are likely scores if not hundreds of candidates who will be competing with you for every job.  Why not take this opportunity to distinguish yourself?  No matter how much some people will denigrate their relevance, I have spoken to many hiring managers who have confirmed for me time and again that they are a key indicator of a candidate’s suitability to technical positions.

Refreshing Options in Windows 8

I love cleaning out my PC.  When I can reimage and start from scratch I am a happy man.  Why? Everything runs smoother.  It is, in many ways, the same as getting your car washed and detailed.  It is a known fact that cleaner cars run better than dirty ones.  In reality, as we use our computer the OS can, over time, get kludgy.  I could go into the reasons for this, registry bloat and infestation and all that, but this is not an article for the 300-level types who need to know these things, it is for the average man or woman – the one who knows that his or her computer ran faster when they got it than it does today.

When I say this is not for the 300-level types, it is because at that level there are both more roadblocks to this, as well as better tools to accomplish the end goal.  We’ll talk about the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, User State Migration Tool, and other fun stuff in other articles.  This, my friends, is an article for my mother-in-law… an end user who does not tend to install applications on a regular basis, who uses the same Microsoft Office Home and Student, maybe a game or two, and the Internet.

Windows 7 has a great tool in it called Windows Easy Transfer.  In short, it captures your user profile to an external device, and restores it to your newly installed PC.  It is great for when you get a new PC, or when your PC needs to be re-imaged.  Before I begin any repair work to the PCs of friends or family I begin by taking a quick WET image.  It doesn’t save your applications, but those can be reinstalled.  Lost data, on the other hand, can be quite costly both in terms of financial and emotional expense.

Windows 8 has two new tools on the General tab of the PC Settings screen that are really exciting.

image

  1. imageRefresh your PC without affecting your files.  Although Windows 8 promises real improvement in the kludginess factor (it is, as I have stated in recent articles, really really fast!) I am sure that there are things that will affect your PC that will cause it to slow down over time.  Whether that be malware, errant code, or anything else that may affect the speed and performance of your PC.  the Refresh Your PC option will literally clean out everything… except your data.  It will restore all of your settings, it will wipe out all applications, and then restore all applications that were installed from the Windows Store.  This is a long-thinking view, because right now most of our applications are installed from media, but the plan is that this will (over the course of several years) change to most apps being installed from the Store, just like apps for the iPhone and iPad are from the iStore.
  2. imageRemove everything and reinstall Windows.  This will restore your PC to the factory settings, as it were.  OOBE away!  This is useful for several scenarios, not the least of which is ‘Ok, I’m upgrading to a new PC and don’t want whoever gets (or buys) my old one to have my data and apps.’

While neither of these are features that anyone will be using every day, they will make restores and clean wipes much easier than they ever were.  Just be careful not to press either of these by accident… although there are fail-safes in place (notice the big CANCEL option!) it is just as easy to press the wrong button and end up wiping the lot.  While it will not prevent it from happening, I strongly suggest a good backup strategy, and of course storing your data in the cloud never hurts – the new SkyDrive app will make that much easier for end users and IT Pros alike.

Can you convince your boss to let you get certified? UCA!

English: Microsoft Certified IT Professional

One of the benefits I get from conferences like Microsoft TechEd is reconnecting with friends and colleagues that I only see at these shows.  David and I have been friends for a couple of years, and when we discovered that we were  both staying over an extra night we decided to splurge and drive a ways to Tampa for dinner at what is in my opinion the best steakhouse and among the best restaurants in North America – Bern’s Steakhouse.

Of course it is slightly over an hour’s drive each way, so in addition to the 2.5 hours we spent in the restaurant we had plenty of time to discuss all sorts of topics, some personal but many business and technology related.

David works on the Microsoft Windows team at Microsoft.  His current area of focus is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which is a subject that have been talking about to user groups for the past six months.  We definitely had a lot to discuss!

He was telling me that in a past job he ran an entirely VMware-based virtualization infrastructure, which makes sense because at the time most virtualized datacenters were running VMware.  He told me he thought it amusing that to this day a Google search of his name comes up with a presentation he did years ago at VMworld.

Speaking at VMworld is a very prestigious gig, on a par to speaking at Microsoft’s TechEd or MMS.  I would have thought that in order to be invited you would have to have at least a VMware Certified Professional (VCP) cert.  He told me that he wasn’t, and the reason for it was VMware Learning’s requirement that you take their course before you sit their exam, and since he knew the product well enough to run a datacenter for the City of Las Vegas, it was a tough sell to his boss to get them to give him the week off as well as pay for the class and exam.  It was not a battle he was ever able to win, so he never got VMware certified.

We started talking about his employer’s position, and that it was, after all, a reasonable one.  In the case of an IT pro who is already proficient on a technology, certifications are for your next job, not for your current one.

Some people are able to learn a technology on their own better (and certainly cheaper) than they could from a class.  Is this always true?  Of course not… it is only true of some of us.

If you know a technology and you have proven it in a production environment for your employer then although it may be reasonable to spend a couple hundred dollars on an exam that is done in an afternoon, there is little value in paying thousands of dollars for a course that takes you away from your job for several days to a week.

So if my previous statement is true, that certifications are for your next job, then what value should a company see in an IT education and certification budget and plan for its employees?

There are a number of answers to that question, and depending on the individual in question one of the following answers should help.

1)      An IT professional may know version X of a technology, but that does not mean that they will know version X+1.  For example, I am certified in Network Infrastructure on Windows 2000 and 2003, but I still studied for and wrote the exam for Server 2008.  Why?  It covers new technologies that most of us could not simply read about and then implement following best practices.  New roles and features such as virtualization, Remote Desktop, and IPv6 meant that I had a lot to learn.  A company who has technologists working on legacy products would benefit from a course that teaches the new technologies, as well as a good refresh to the old ones.

2)      When employees change roles – even within IT – education can prepare them for that new role.  I know plenty of IT pros who have been promoted out of desktop support into the server side, but knowing the one does not mean you automatically know the other.

3)      Certifications are the proof that you have the respect for your profession to learn the material the right way, and then take the time to sit down and write a test created by a panel of subject manner experts (SMEs) and prove it.  They are also a good way to learn where you are weak.  Whether you pass or fail the exam your score report (from a Microsoft exam) will let you know what aspects of the technology you are weak on, so you can go back and study those specific parts more.  The first exams I ever wrote (Windows 2000) simply said ‘Fail’ or ‘Pass’, which meant I never learned how close I was to succeeding, nor what I had to brush up on in order to do that.

4)      Technologies change, job roles change.  Over the past ten years desktop deployment specialists have had to learn components of Windows Server, Active Directory, Windows Deployment Server, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, the Windows AIK, and of course System Center Configuration Manager.  Individually some of these are easy enough to self-learn, but for most of us they take a good deal of learning to get right.  Hacking around in Active Directory or System Center production environments when you don’t know what you are doing is just a bad idea.  A class, especially one led by a leading trainer who is also a consultant and can discuss real life scenarios and experiences that can point out shortcuts and pitfalls to be aware of is often worth so much more to the company than the cost of the class.

5)      There are companies that require industry certifications by virtue of corporate policies or external regulatory bodies.  Although many certifications do not expire, they do eventually become irrelevant.  A professional who was hired based on Server 2003 certifications nine years ago was cutting edge, but as the infrastructure is migrated to Server 2008 or Windows Server 2012 those certifications are now meaningless, and with the changes in the industry (such as the advent of the Private Cloud) they may be required to recertify as an MCSE: Private Cloud (for example) in order to remain within scope of the policy or regulations.

The list can go on and on, but the simple fact is this: spending one million dollars is not a waste if you can prove that your return on investment (ROI) will be two million dollars.  If you are struggling to convince your employer/manager/director that they should be sending you for certification training, you simply have to show them what that ROI will be.  However remember to balance that with what it would cost them to replace you with a newer model with the current certs!  Experience and tenure are important, but the era of corporate loyalty is behind us, and I have seen too many times professionals talk themselves out of their jobs by telling their boss how much they have to spend on certification and continuing education.

Good luck!

Troubleshooting MDT Scripts

I have a Windows 7 Deployment Point DVD that I created using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010 for a client, and it has been a godsend during the past ten days.  Because the client wants to make copies to send to their remote locations around the country, I spent a couple of hours scripting as much as I could so that the process would be as simple as possible for the end-users, and so that the corporate computers around the country would all meet my (their) guidelines.  I tested the deployment media on physical hardware and there were absolutely no problems.  Now all that was left was for me to create a document to go with it.  To do this, I created a virtual machine within my Hyper-V laptop so that I could use TechSmith’s SnagIt tool to capture my screen shots.

…and I started getting an error telling me that ‘Windows could not parse or process unattend answer file [C:\Windows\Panther\unattend.xml] for pass [specialize]. The answer file is invalid.’

image

ARGH!

What am I to do?

Why did it work on physical hardware, and is not working in the virtual machine?

What’s different?

During my Troubleshooting LiteTouch Deployment using MDT session at TechDays Canada I remind my audience that if they get an error they shouldn’t close down the system when they get an error… there is so much to be learned from the files that might simply disappear if they are on the RAMDrive.  I pressed <Shift-F10> and looked for the guilty file, and sure enough, under the Specialize Pass section there was the error… the ComputerName field was FAR too long!

When scripting the deployment point one of the rules I included was the following lines to script the computer name to be the same as the serial number:

SkipComputerName=YES
computername=%SerialNumber%

The serial number for the Vostro laptops that the company bought is an 8 character Asset Tag.  This works perfectly because the maximum computer name can be is 15 characters.  Unfortunately the serial number of my Hyper-V virtual machine was much longer – in this case the string read:

<ComputerName>4524-0809-8640-9363-4363-6582-37</ComputerName>

Because of that the deployment was failing. 32 characters!  Of course this is not going to be limited to virtual machines.  Some vendors have longer serial numbers than others.  If you created a deployment point that works fine with your HPs that you want to use to deploy Windows 7 on a white-box PC, you may encounter the same issue.  If you have many systems that you are going to encounter the problem on then you probably will want to go back and recreate your deployment point, whether that be a USB key or (as was the case here) the ISO file.  However if you have a one-off machine that is outside the norm – say, a lab PC that you use to test applications – then for those of you who are adventurous, the following will work, and will save you doing all of that:

  1. Restart the machine as you did previously, initiating the deployment.
  2. Go through all of your screens until you get the ‘Ready to Begin’ screen, and click Begin.  The Task Sequence will start, and will go through the first few tasks pretty quickly.  When the Installing Windows… window comes up, your screen should look like the screenshot below.  At this point the Unattend.xml file that the deployment uses will have been generated and copied to the C Drive, into two distinct locations.
  3. image
  4. Press F8 to open a command prompt.
  5. Navigate to the first file location (C:\$Windows.~BT\Sources\Panther).
  6. type notepad Unattend.xml.
  7. In the Notepad window search for the string <ComputerName>.
  8. Change the string between <ComputerName> and </ComputerName> to an acceptable name (fewer than 15 characters).
  9. Save the file and exit from Notepad.
  10. Navigate to the second file location (C:\MININT)
  11. Repeat steps 6-9
  12. Type exit.

(NOTE: Typing EXIT is crucial, as the open command prompt window will prevent the Windows Installation from rebooting the system.)

Now: In the event that you get an error that the deployment is suspended, you might have to wipe the disk first… use these steps only in a clean install scenario, because it will wipe any data on the drive!

  1. Restart the virtual machine from the DVD.
  2. When Windows PE comes up, press F8.  When the command prompt (will you people finally realize this is NOT DOS!!) comes up type diskpart to start the Disk Partition tool.
  3. Within the Disk Partition tool type list disk.
  4. Make sure you pick the disk that you are installing Windows on and type Select Disk # (where # is the number of the disk).
  5. Type CLEAN

As soon as the partition is wiped you can reboot the computer and restart your deployment.

I hope this helps… now go forth and deploy, and script-sin no more!

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