One of the age-old dilemmas that computer technicians have been trying to solve boils down to a simple matter of streamlining Windows reinstallation on the client systems. There was a time when using floppy disks to get Windows 3.1 or 95 installed was considered a chore. The CD brought us a sigh of relief, and the DVD soon followed and allowed fast installations of Windows on a single large capacity disk.
Even now, as thumb drive installation of Windows 7 has become commonplace, and digital delivery for MAC OS X is becoming ever more popular, there is still an often forgotten installation method for Windows that throws out the entire necessity for an internet connection or physical media. It’s a theory called PXE network installation and it has been around since the days of Windows 2000.
Why do so few technicians know of (or better yet – utilize) this great technology? There may be mutual disagreement, but I’d put my money on the fact that the complexity has always been the number one factor reducing widespread usage. Microsoft’s intentions with the functionality were always well-spirited, but the hoops one would have to go through to setup a RIS or WDS remote installation environment were just too steep.
The concept, at face value, is amazing. Place a wide array of client operating systems like Windows 7 and Windows 8 onto a centralized server and push installation over a network backbone. No media needed, no special software, just clients with network cards capable of PXE boot and a single system hosting the installation “bits.”
Microsoft’s implementation of RIS (for 2000 and XP-era systems) and WDS (for Vista and above) is generally only palpable for a sizable modern IT department. The majority of Technibblers reading this are likely one or two-man shops that serve residential and small business customers. Putting the money, time, and expertise into a RIS/WDS setup even at their own office is asking a bit much. Thankfully, a new piece of software called Serva has brought the power of network-based Windows installation down to a very basic (and cheap) level.
What exactly is Serva?
While the focus of this article is on Serva’s ability to act as a PXE Windows installation server, it’s a truly multi-faceted program that may fill other voids for you as well. At its core, Serva is actually billed as an “all-in-one portable multi-server” that can near instantly setup any standard Windows system into a full-blown FTP, HTTP, and other kind of servers. The possibilities of what you can do with Serva are quite limitless, so I truly recommend you give it a full look, even if you don’t have any plans to host PXE Windows installations.
How practical is Serva as a PXE Windows installation server?
If you’ve been turned off in the past by the steep requirements of Microsoft’s RIS or WDS platforms (Active Directory tie-in, Windows Server requirements, etc) then Serva will likely fall right your alley. For most technicians, there is relatively no investment needed to get Serva running properly (besides time and patience, of course.) If you have a spare workstation or bench system that runs Windows already, you have a Serva host capable of being converted into a PXE server.
The only limitation I can foresee is the network speed at which all respective NICs operate at in the equation. If you are on a 10/100 network, you may not see the time savings of using a Serva PXE host for installing Windows because your client transfers may be much slower than CD/DVD installs. Another consideration to make is what percentage of systems you work on actually have a PXE-capable network card. There is no hard number for this, but my findings have been that most 2005 and newer computers tend to have PXE (except for the lowest bargain bin systems). If your shop doesn’t repair many systems of at least this caliber, you may be better off sticking with the traditional methods of installing Windows.
What are the requirements for a Serva PXE network?
While the official Windows PXE guide from the Serva website covers most of this, I will add in some of my own two cents based on testing I’ve done. The requirements for setting up a Serva PXE backbone are pretty simple:
- A “host” system that can run Serva. While I couldn’t find any official OS list, I’m going to make an educated guess that Serva can run on most flavors of Windows from 2000 up. It’s a very light program that doesn’t use many resources. I called this a “host” system because it doesn’t need a power hungry server that comes to mind whenever that (dirty) word comes up. A normal Windows workstation is just fine and recommended!
- A sufficient LAN, preferably running at gigabit speeds. Sure you use Serva on any speed network, but to make this project worthwhile, having a gigabit switch on the backend is your best bet. Spending the time setting this up to save time down the road is our purpose here, and a 10/100 network will be slower than just installing Windows off a DVD or thumb drive.
- The software Serva itself. Serva is freeware from everything I can muster from its website, but donations are highly suggested. As they say: if it makes your life easier, pitch a few bucks to the developer. It wouldn’t hurt. You can download the latest version (now v2.0) on the official site.
- ISO sources and/or DVD installation media for EACH flavor of Windows you want to “serve” on your PXE setup. For most technicians this won’t be hard, but some newcomers may find trouble in this. Basically, if you want to host Windows 7 Pro x64 or Windows 8 Pro x64 on your Serva machine, you need to have legal, valid source ISO/media for the raw install files. I’ve compiled my source images over years of working on client systems and having access to legit OEM media, and I won’t discuss other means for obtaining these. My advice? Keep it legal, folks.
- PXE-capable client systems. As I mentioned above, PXE capable network cards are present on most PCs since about 2005, outside of bargin bin machines. If you’re curious whether a prospective machine has PXE capability, the easiest and fastest way to check is in the BIOS of the system. There will either be an option in the boot order for an item such as “Network Boot ROM” or “Network Boot” and some manufacturers have a specific option that can be turned on/off along the lines of “PXE Capability” or “Network Booting.” Every make/model is different so you will need to do a little mouse chasing on this one. (If you’re curious, about 80% of the systems that come in for repairs at FireLogic have PXE. My findings are un-scientific and just an observation!)
- Some “basic knowledge” on networking, DHCP, and working with Windows installation. This may be the most ambiguous requirements of all, but I don’t know any better way to phrase it. You need to judge for yourself whether you have the expertise and willpower to get this running. While Serva is 10x less complicated than getting WDS going, it still presented a few hoops for me as a seasoned technician. Tread at your own discretion (but please, don’t be fearful – learning new things is always fun!)
What steps does setting up Serva entail?
Note: The below information is a summarized copy of the official installation guide available on the Serva website. Refer to the true guide for a complete step-by-step; I am paraphrasing the process for sake of discussion only.
Setting up Serva is a pretty straightforward process that entails only a few major aspects. Below is an overview of the physical layout of your potential Serva-powered network:
As long as you have the requirements met that I listed above, you should be able to get your own PXE-powered Windows installation backbone running. In brief, here is what it takes:
- Plan your network layout. This may seem logical, but many younger techs may overlook this. What kind of switch will you be plugging the Serva host into – 100 speed or full gigabit? Will clients be moving traffic across slower switches than the uplink that Serva is hosted on? These are all considerations that may slow down an ideal setup. Streamline your network as much as possible, and try to have gigabit at each “point” in the layout. The faster the racetrack is, the more beneficial your results will be.
- Install Serva on your host machine. The official guide goes over this in full detail, so this step is pretty straightforward.
- Configure Serva to act as a TFTP server. This is the platform that will, in essence, actually allow for files to be streamed to clients over the network. This functionality is brilliantly (and simply) handled by TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol.) Refer to the official guide for the full layout of proper settings.
- Configure DHCP options within Serva. This may be over some technicians’ heads, so I’ll be brief and let the guide do the explaining. But depending on who is handing out IP addresses on your shop or home network, you will need to configure Serva to either handle this aspect or merely set it as a DHCP proxy. The Serva website has a wonderful in-depth guide on some of the finer aspects of DHCP considerations.
- Create a proper folder structure for storing “Windows assets” within, and share them out. This part of the process also involves a few detailed aspects, which the guide covers. There are two aspects to getting this part working. One involved creating the folder structure that will host your Windows installation assets (ISO or DVD files) in an organized manner. Keep in mind that each flavor of Windows has to be named according to what the ISO title was set to according to Microsoft. This can be tricky especially if you’ve slipstreamed your own custom ISOs by software like nLite in the past. The final step is sharing out the uppermost Serva asset folders properly. The guide has the full scoop on these specifics.
- Quit Serva and restart the program – seriously! This is an important step, as the Serva author describes, because of how Serva re-compiles the available Windows installations for sharing through BINL (Boot Information Negotiation Layer).
- Start up your client system, ensuring Network Boot is above Hard Drive Boot in the boot process.If PXE and DHCP behave as they should, you will get a nice boot screen similar to the following (depending on what flavors of Windows you have shared in Serva):
- If all went well, Windows should install as normal. Wishful thinking, I know, but if you follow the guide well, you should be OK. My problem when testing came down to improperly naming my Windows share sub-directories. I did not use the appropriate ISO title for the folder and Windows crashed during installation very early on. Other than that, Serva setup was pretty smooth.
Serva’s value depends on how much Windows reinstallation you do
In the end, Serva is a great tool. It allows you to simplify your installation procedure and accommodate for client systems that may not have optical drives, but happen to have nice Ethernet connections. I’m hoping PC makers do not follow Apple’s path in removing the ever-useful Ethernet jack on laptops and desktops, but aside from that, the needs for harnessing the power of Serva are fairly easy to attain. But bigger considerations need to be made before diving into a full blown Serva setup.
For my company, Serva is not as necessary today as it may have been perhaps in the mid 2000 years when XP was still hot and reinstallations due to malware were high. Today, the number of systems that we are reinstalling from scratch has gone down dramatically starting with Vista, and this will continue to decline as Windows 8 hits. However, our situation doesn’t describe everyone’s needs. If you handle a lot of Windows XP machines that need to be reinstalled in an efficient manner, then getting a PXE-powered Serva network running is a great idea. Or if you handle a lot of fresh reloads in general – Windows 7 included.
Serva makes life that much easier for a few key reasons:
- You don’t need multiple installation thumb drives or DVDs. Serva can push multiple simultaneous Windows installations to different systems at the same time at full gigabit speed (your host systems’s RAM, CPU, and Hard Drive capabilities will limit you respectively.)
- You can quickly install Windows on systems that don’t have optical drives (or working USB ports, for that matter) as long as you have ethernet – which is near universal.
- You can easily slipstream drivers into your Windows flavors on the fly to make life easier post-installation. We used to do this with nLite and vLite, but this is as good as it gets since you can change driver loads instantly.
- Do you work for an IT department at a larger organization? Serva may be the most useful for someone in such a position.
I highly encourage you to give Serva a run for the money to see what you think. Even though I don’t plan on implementing a PXE-based Serva network server full time, it was a great experience that gives me excellent insight as to what possibilities there with technologies like RIS, WDS, and PXE booting.
Have you used Serva? What do you think of it? Give us your feedback in the comments section!