Does Microsoft think SMS Software Packaging is dead?

A few weeks ago I was doing Q&A at the SMS booth with some Microsoft employees at TechEd and a woman approached us about the best way to roll out a particular piece of software. If I remember correctly, she currently uses InstallSheild to call the vendor’s silent installation routine but her question was in regards to the package reporting fields within the SMS Administrator’s console. After she walked away the comment was made to me “People still package software before rolling it out, huh?”.

WOW. I was blown away that there are people inside the SMS Product group don’t really think that packaging isn’t a major piece of a solid SMS Infrastructure. I’d actually go out on a limb and say it’s one of the most critical pieces of a good SMS implementation. This made me do a little research into some of the documentation that’s out there for SMS2K3 to find some information on software packaging. Low and behold there really isn’t much out there. In fact this is pretty much all there is:


SMS Installer

You can use SMS Installer to create an executable file that you can add to a package and advertise to clients. SMS Installer creates a self-extracting file or Windows Installer file that includes the data and files for the software application and the installation script that you created using SMS Installer. By using the SMS Installer Script Editor, you can modify the installation script that SMS Installer creates.

SMS Installer does not create the package, distribution points, or advertisements within SMS, so you must use another method to perform these tasks. SMS Installer creates a package definition file that can be imported into SMS with either the Distribute Software Wizard or the Create Package from Definition Wizard. For more information about SMS Installer, see Chapter 7, “Creating Software Installation Packages with SMS Installer.”

Really when I think back at all the Microsoft demo’s and conference sessions you almost always see them call an ISV’s silent installation directly in the program command line or an MSI. Now I know that there are many people within the SMS Product group that don’t think app’s should be deployed like this. In fact I was even talking with one of them (names not divulged to protect the innocent!) when I was in Redmond and he went on for about 20 minutes at lunch telling me about one customer that started taking people with high levels of software development in their backgrounds and made them packagers for SMS. When this started happening the quality of packages and success rates of deployments went up by a dramatic level. Why is this? IMHO for a couple of reasons:

1. Developers are usually more detail orientated. They make sure that a package is fully tested across all platforms and all bugs are worked out before deployment in the same manner that they would test a new product that they developed before selling it to a customer.

2. Developers account for unknown variables in the environment. Just sending out a package isn’t enough as you need to think about what might cause your installation to fail as well as fallback on experience of things you know have impacted your installations in the past.

There are also other factors which tell me not everyone believes software packaging is dead. Take a look at the SMS2K3 SDK. If the SMS Product group didn’t think that packaging was still important why would they create functions like InstallStatusMIF?

And what about the line of business applications that don’t support silent installation parameters? Smaller organizations with budget constraints are stuck with using SMS Installer for repackaging which, lets face it, is getting to be an antiquated tool that hasn’t been updated in quite some time. They don’t have the resources to put towards an enterprise packaging toolset like Wise or InstallSheild in order to do quality deployments.

Time for an update!

So what needs to change? I think its Microsoft’s perception of the SMS Administrator to be perfectly honest, as it is the SMS Admin’s toolsets have needed to grow for SMS 2003. The days of the 2.0 Admin are gone with just needing SMS and some domain knowledge. SMS 2003 ties in more closely with AD for one so knowledge of LDAP communication with the directory, etc is needed (and don’t even get me started on the amount of time people spend troubleshooting MP communication issues because of SPN registration issues or Computer access/authentication problems) as well as IIS configuration and so forth. Its really funny when I see a vendor at a trade show talking about how their management technology can solve all of your problems because they have all these built in reports, etc, so you won’t need to waste time on that stuff. No way any ISV can do that. The purpose of reporting is so it can be customized for your organization so the knowledge to do that stuff has to be in-house, especially with really large organizations. The same thing goes for Software Packaging. Really good packaging teams have reporting built into their installers to make troubleshooting easy and reporting integrated into your SMS site. Some common things done to improve software packages are:

– Standard package logging location with easy to follow flow and error messages

– Registry reporting for inventorying

– Custom SMS Status Messages

– Package Versioning for tracking of bugs

– Anti-Virus Software stopped before installation and restarted after (a common recommendation from ISV’s)

– Checking for backups (in the case of major updates like Service Packs)

Most importantly however is the ability to include checks in your scripts for problems. An example would be a problem I ran into with SP4 for Win2K. We had this application called Win Driver which placed a library, Windrvr.sys I believe, in the %sys32%\Drivers directory. Turns out that on every system if it wasn’t at the latest version the system would blue screen. Now, if you have 200+ machines that this application is on that could be an issue. So what does a good software packager do here? He (or she) can check to make sure that the file version of Windrvr.sys is recent enough and if its not either abort the installation (and use the good packaging practices above to log this efficiently and report back to SMS) or automatically update the file if its not in use and continue with the SP4 installation.

That’s just one of many examples that can be done through good packaging which is really one of the most lucrative pieces of SMS where effective enterprise management can be seen. Its just a shame that Microsoft won’t be providing the tools to do this in the foreseeable future so we are stuck with limited functionality or the purchase of high-end (read: expensive) tools to get the job done. Additionally these 3rd party tools have no impact into the future versions of SMS and integration into the management structure. Yeah, many are gold level partners but lets not kid ourselves here – Microsoft has the biggest impact on Microsoft so if you want to see some cool integration with a software packaging tool they most likely need to be doing it. Why not SMS Installer 3.0 with some new actions like:

– Add new Advanced Client Policy

– Compile data class to WMI (yes! No need to copy your custom sms_def.mof to the client and compile)

– Initiate HINV/SINV

– Initiate Machine Policy Retrieval Cycle

– Update Get System Information to get the SMS Site, Default MP, AD site, etc

When I think about what a major complaint from many Microsoft customers is about SMS, I consistently hear that Software Distributions can be difficult. Now to be fair they aren’t claiming there are other products that are hands down easier, just that its problematic with SMS. If the scripting interface were more robust and easier to configure anyone would be able to create awesome packages that could be deployed with great success.




36 thoughts on “Does Microsoft think SMS Software Packaging is dead?

  1. Richard you are 100% on target!

    I have heard very few people address the skillset needs of SMS. Sadly, every SMS implementation I’ve worked with has a history of failure due to the fact that the skillset required was not addressed.

    Your suggestions for improvement in Software deployment would be monumental if they were incorporated.

    I’m sending a link of your post to

  2. I would like to know why MS was thinking peoples were not packaging???

    What about softwares like:

    – Palm hotsync

    – Intellisync

    – Kodak Easy share

    – Others hard software….

    What can we do if we have to distribute a software and the software is bad. Too many company are saying not supporting software distribution. What can we do if we are not packaging???

  3. I’m very disappointed that one person’s off-hand comment has made such a big impact on our customers perception of what MS thinks. As a consultant for 8 years and now a MS employee, I can assure you that this is more the exception than the norm. In fact on many customer visits i have stressed the need to develop packaging test labs, that include user acceptance testing etc, this is especially important for hierarchies with hundreds of clients and thousands of locations (yes I worked there for 2 years as well!).

    It’s my personal opionion that most of the MS demo’s are focuses on MS product deployment (imagine that) and great lengths we go to help customers not have to repackage our products. Obviously there is always going to be environments where this not going to work.

    The The Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI) is a Microsoft and industry effort to enhance the Microsoft Windows® platform and deliver a coordinated set of solutions that dramatically simplify and automate how businesses design, deploy, manage, and operate distributed systems. This is all about implementing some of need for repackaging into the actual application.code.

  4. Craig I think you might be missing my point: There is no work going into SMS Installer so to get high quality packaging done you need to purchase additional software from Wise, InstallSheild, etc. As I said, I know many people within the SMS Product group that still think scripting and packaging are important yet others do not. So with the opinions being split within the Product group its evident why there isn’t a priority being put on future development of SMSI. Heck, the first iteration of the Scan Tool (and the current version for 2.0) was created in SMSI. We really need to get the ball rolling on this and get some pressure around future improvements and continued development of SMSI. This would make the overall SMS2K3 package more lucrative to companies.

  5. SMS Installer is meant to suffice for simple requirements, and you’re right that it is not appropriate for enterprise-level packaging.

    Most large companies have dedicated personnel or departments for packaging as the skill set(s) required for packaging and installation testing are significant enough to warrant focused resources. The packaging/installation/reporting requirements these companies have require considerable feature sets and functionality.

    Companies like InstallShield have large product teams and several products to address the varying features sets appropriate for these companies. For instance, InstallShield has AdminStudio, Patch Impact Manager, InstallShield X, Installshield X Express, Update Service, Tuner, and AMS. All of these products address different feature sets and functionalities because one size simply does not fit all. I’m not sure how many employees InstallShield has dedicated to Dev and R&D but I’m sure it’s as many or more than Microsoft has devoted to SMS as a whole.

    What it seems like you’re asking for is the feature set of InstallShield’s most complete packages but for a low-to-free price point. I’m not on the SMS product team but my perception is that Microsoft is not interested in competing with all of those products, and if they were I doubt they would bundle it with SMS when the InstallShield products range in price from $399 to $2000… not including maintenance or support plans.

    You are absolutely correct that SMS software distribution is reliant on good packaging, and the most common issues with installation have to do with inappropriate targeting or insufficient package testing. I also repeatedly get asked if there is an updated SMS Installer for 2003, particularly by smaller companies that don’t have the resources to devote to dedicated packaging. While it would be nice for MS to devote resources to updating Installer, I’d rather have them focusing on adding more capabilities and reliability to SMS and let the packaging experts like InstallShield focus on providing the best package dev tools available.

    Another thing to consider is that InstallShield is adding signficant SMS 2003 linkage into their products. This is a benefit of the SMS Alliance… a partnership that I hope will grow and thrive as time goes on.

  6. By relying on 3rd party ISV’s to plug a big piece of your Enterprise Managment software, Microsoft is also subject to business deals, etc, that they chose to partake in. I noticed you only spoke about InstallShield. If you took a poll of the SMS community you would find that out of purchased packaging software Wise is the preference of most. Problem is that Altiris bought Wise and Altiris is a competetor. So if you are a Wise shop its in your best interest to jump ship over to InstallSheild because they are in the SMS Alliance and can have closer integration into SMS because of the Microsoft relationship there. This is bad because there is a big learning curve in transitioning between packaging products because of the differences in the scripting languages. Secondly, what happens whan another competetor buys InstallSheild?

  7. Now that Macrovision has purchased InstallShield, it’s clear that the company’s focus will be on the ISV market rather than system administrators. Software packaging is totally unrelated to Macrovision’s core competency in the digital rights management field.

    Although Wise is now owned by Altiris, SMS customers would still be better off with Wise than InstallShield. Wise has always been the product of choice among system administrators. Since Wise is owned by a company that is in the systems management business, it has a strong incentive to continue to develop software pacakaging functionality that will benefit all system administrators regardless of their choice of software distribution systems.

  8. Hi Richard,

    I agree with you that Microsoft could do a far better job with SMSI. It seems like a missed opportunity! Most corporations almost never send out basic setup.exe or MSI installs, rather — they re-package, or wrap almost everything that is sent out via SMS.

    We had choosen WISE (before they were purchased by Altiris), due to a lot of very nice features, such as being able to tweak MSI packages and robust exclude lists for re-packaging. At this point in time, unless the WISE product were to take a serious downturn or price increase, we won’t be moving to any other installation technology.

  9. If MS was to look at the applications being churned out by many companies developing Clinical applications for the Medical industry, they would see that packaging is extremely important. It seems to me that many of these companies put very little effort into the deployment tools for there products. As an SMS administrator in a large hospital, I’ve noticed many companies do not even consider deploying to thousands of computers and lack the "enterprise" outlook on a computer network.

    We spend countless hours re-engineering the installation of the applications for SMS deployment. And because of that, we have a high success rate when deploying applications enterprise wide.

  10. Software packaging will be around until everything becomes 100% web based.

    Tools such as Wise, InstallShield, WinInstall are critical pieces of the software distribution environment. Every demo, class, or seminar that Microsoft hosts will absolutely focus on Microsoft products and not on other party applications and tools that we use in the real world. My guess is that almost every SMS admin out there with any time spent doing deployment has at least some experience with software packaging tools and views them as an integral part of their skill set.

  11. WOW… this is an excellent thread…. Craig’s commentary is particularly encouraging…

    One aspect of this that none of you touched on is the case such aas we have in my company… we too have a dedicated team of packaging resources. Unfortunately this is a case of a group tasked with all the responsibilities but not provided with adequate tools and resources to get their job done. Simply put, that means we do not have any serious investment in WISE or InstallShield…

    (side comment to the earlier comment re: deploying these tools for $399-2,000: Been there; tried that… costs for *us* are in fact upstream of $10k minimum to get the product(s) in house)

    So the efforts here historically have been "use what’s provided with the (SMS) product"… as a result, we have a team that is VERY good at putting SMSI thru its hoops, along with VB scripting to help it out… I believe this may be part of our problem: management sees them getting the job done "for free" so why bother investing a ton of money in Wise Admin Studio and its related add-ons? So the pacvkagers continue to drone away using the same old (and now getting very tired) tool – SMSI… I wholeheartedly support Richard’s original commentary here, and take some small comfort in Craig’s "rebuttal"…. I SERIOUSLY hope this has the net effect of seeing a seriously updated SMSI that supports the SMS 2003 tool and feature set…

  12. Although I applaud Microsoft for making a much more serious effort with SMS 2003 than they did with SMS 2.0, this just goes to show how much out of touch with the outside world they are (again). Has Microsoft ever attempted to push software such as Remedy, Exceed, Client Access, or just about any software that uses MSI to install.

    If you want to have any sort of REAL deployment error tracking, there is simply no other way to do that other than packaging it. Even with MSI, you still want it to pump out a success or error MIF file, or even log file. Now what if you want to take action based on those results?? The error could simply be that the proper version of MSIExec isn’t installed? Then what?? Without packaging it first to either check for the proper version, you’re SOL!

    I would venture to say that packaging has become so much more in need now than it has been in the past because of the extra control over distribution reporting, or error checking, or actions based on specific error codes. Packaging will definately be a permanent mainstay.

    just my 2 Cents. : -)

  13. We could not be sucessful if we did not do software packaging. Being an academic environment means we are constantly packaging different software and tweaking it for how the users need it. We have switched to another product to create the package years ago because of the issues with SMS. SMS is a great product for a number of reasons, packaging is not one of them.

    -Chip Eckardt-

  14. As an SMS Admin AND packager for almost 4 years, on a day to day basis most of my time is consumed with packaging and distribution tasks. If I’ve done my job properly as an SMS admin, the infrastucture pretty much runs itself and there is very little SMS administrative overhead.

    We purchased Wise about a year ago because it was clear that Microsoft had no intention of supplying a mature Windows Installer packaging tool with SMS 2003. I do hope that as the use of Windows Installer technology grows, Microsoft will also keep pace with improved reporting for this standard and more flexible deployment options.

    Judging from the postions I see out there, there are very few pure SMS administration jobs out there. Most involve packaging, deployment and administration duties.

  15. I’m still pretty green when it comes to packaging, but the scripting aspect of SMS installer (I know almost nothing about scripting) has really helped me make my deployments far more successful than the native installs would have been. I’ve also been able to deploy chains of patches, add reg entries, turn on/off services, edit ini files, adjust network settings, modify security settings, etc… I even script everyday tasks with it just to make things run easier for my fellow techs. Besides, there are forums (MyITforum for one) with huge amounts of resources for SMSI that makes my job easier than I could ever have hoped for. We also use Wise to repackage apps that don’t come in MSI form and in some cases probably never will.

    I couldn’t imagine just letting apps, etc go without atleast scripting the install. I don’t think I have ever spoken to an SMS admin that doesn’t package or script.

  16. Just a coincidence. I am in the SMS Product Group, and we worked out this deal with InstallShield — a very strong partner of the SMS team and part of the independent SMS Alliance group of ISVs — several months ago. Microsoft definitely agrees that the success of software installation is in how the software is packaged, and we came up with a deal which both companies believe can benefit our mutual customers.

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