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Building Windows Installer (MSI) files

You can use FastTrack Automation Studio to repackage setup programs that are not MSI-based. This allows you to avoid using unreliable before-and-after snapshots that bypass the installer logic to build deployable MSI files. Repackaged or custom built MSI packages built with FastTrack Automation Studio also adds a new and exciting feature to Group Policy deployments: You can add launch conditions to prevent the installation on some computers in a container or OU.

You can also build a custom MSI file that is a vehicle for installing your script as a scheduled task, Windows service or Windows Explorer startup item. These editions also allow you to compile into exe files. Refer to this page for more information on exe files.

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MSI files

Building Windows Installer (MSI) files

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EXE-to-MSI (and MSI-to-MSI)

If you need to repackage an exe based set up (or an msi based setup to add launch conditions), into MSI format for mass-deployment, you do not need to write a script at all. If you started in App Factory mode, use the "EXE to MSI" icon, as shown below. If you are in Scripting Mode, switch to App Factory mode in the top menu. If you are using the MSI edition, you will see an EXE-to-MSI icon in the top menu.
App Factory EXE-to-MSI Generator
This will bring up the wizard below. It has pre-built converters for TeamViewer, MalwareBytes, Avast, AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials (click the links to see documentation). If you have other EXE based installers, you can select the top option, which is generic EXE-to-MSI conversion, where you select the setup files and enter unattended switches for this product. If you do not know the unattended switches for the setup exe file, use Google to find them. They always exist. If you still can't find them, contact support in the top menu, and we will help you.

Custom MSI package

Launch Conditions and Group Policy deployments

All FastTrack Automation Studio wizards support launch conditions, including the EXE-to-MSI repackage wizard and the custom MSI building wizard (explained further down). They all have two pages, which look like the screenshots below. They basically allow you to avoid installing the MSI package you are building under certain conditions, being either hardware based or based on Active Directory information, such as computer group membership. This means that you can deploy the MSI to an entire OU or container in your Active Directory with Group Policies and avoid having it install the software on for example servers and virtual machines. This would otherwise not be possible with Group Policies, as it's all or nothing. In effect, this means that you can deploy all your software using Group Policies with FastTrack MSI packages. This is why there is also an option in the EXE-to-MSI wizard that repackages an MSI file into a new one, as this adds blocking features.

Launch conditions in an MSI file

The first page lets you block on hardware and operating system. The second launch condition page lets you block based on Active Directory information:

Active Directory launch conditions in an MSI file

To understand how launch conditions work, we have to look at what a wizard does. Let's use the EXE-to-MSI wizard as an example. There are four scenarios within FastTrack Automation Studio to create MSI files, as shown below. What we are doing with EXE-to-MSI is using the option to the left. The MSI that wraps around the software setup file is always installed, but it does not do anything other than register as a program in the Windows programs list, if it hits a launch condition blocking. This means that from the point view of Group Policies or SCCM, the installation is always successful and will therefore never try to resend the MSI file.

MSI types

Fixing the Windows Installer simultaneous installations problem

Windows Installer has a major flaw. It cannot handle simultaneous installations (resulting in the dreaded MSI error 1618). For this reason, MSI installation files built with FastTrack Automation Studio will spawn the embedded installation by the end of the controller installation. Otherwise, it would not be possible to install an embedded MSI file inside a controller MSI file. And often times exe based setup programs use one or more MSI files as part of the installation too.

If you build your own MSI scripts (see next section), do not run msiexec.exe. Use the InstallMSI and UninstallMSI commands, as they will wait for other ongoing installations to finish.

Creating script based custom MSI installation packages

You can also choose to build your own installers based on a FastTrack script, which is the third box from the left above. Typical scenarios for this are:
  • You used the option on the last page of a wizard to expand a script and you now need to compile it
  • You need to create an MSI file, where the installer files are not embedded, but installed from a network share
  • You need to create a script based MSI that not only installs an MSI or EXE file, but also modifies the machine after installation
  • You have a set of own internal files that you need to create a deployable MSI installation package for
  • You need to deploy a script as a Scheduled Task, a Windows Service og an Explorer startup item
This section will only give you a quick understanding of the concept; please refer to the Advanced MSI Compilation page for in-depth details. To create an MSI file, create or open a script and simply click the MSI menu item in Scripting Mode - or press F12:

Creating MSI file from project

The wizard to generate the MSI file is very simple and intuitive and includes all launch condition options. Fill in the basic properties for the output file and you have an MSI file based on your script. If your script must handle installation and uninstallation, you must use the MSIInstallContext condition to determine, if the script is currently installing or uninstalling. This is also explained on the Advanced MSI Compilation page. Compilation into Scheduled Tasks, Windows Services and Explorer startup items are explained further down.

MSI installation properties

Understanding editions

Let us look into which edition is most suitable for your needs. The short answer is that if your needs are only to create or repackage MSI files for mass deployment with Group Policies or SCCM, the MSI edition is what you are looking for. If you are looking to use FastTrack for more than that, the Enterprise edition is most likely what you should be looking at. The table below clarifies which MSI features are available in which edition.
  MSI Edition Professional Enterprise Platinum
Repackaging of EXE based setup (EXE-to-MSI wizard)
Repackaging of MSI based setup (also the EXE-to-MSI wizard)
Build own custom MSI files
Include other files inside MSI files
MSI launch condition technology
Validation logic against Active Directory
Build controller installations (pulling install files from FTP, Shares, etc)
Build and deploy scheduled tasks through MSI files
Build and deploy Windows Services through MSI files
Execute FastTrack scripts
Build custom exe files
Starting price $299 $449 $599 $749

Building a scheduled task inside MSI files to deploy through group policies (Enterprise and Platinum only)

You can compile your script and optional files into a one-time installation, as shown above, but if you have the Enterprise or Platinum edition, you can also compile your script into a scheduled task that is contained inside an MSI file, by selecting "Compile script into a Scheduled task inside an MSI package" in the "Installation type" drop down list on the first page of the MSI generation wizard (see screenshot above). This will produce two extra pages in the wizard. The first one looks as shown below and the second one is for scheduled task credentials. A good example of this is the Deploying applications to server farms scenario.

Scheduled task contained inside an MSI package page 2

The scheduled task option allows you to create recurring scripts that can perform maintenance, upload inventory data, or be a controller of, for example, installations to avoid them happening at the same time on too many computers or you can enable all of these at the same time in the same script. The default trigger type "At random time every day" is a daily trigger that spreads the daily execution at random across off-peak hours (random start and end in the screenshot above). Random time means that the scheduled task triggers at the same time on a computer, but the time is set to random at installation time. If, at the time of the scheduled task installation, a computer was assigned a random trigger at 10:55, this computer will trigger at 10:55 every day.

A scheduled task using a randomized trigger time is a good way to get a trigger script installed in a server farm, as was the case with the Deploying applications to server farms example. But it can also serve as a means to get around User Account Control (UAC) limitations for installations. Please refer to the UAC page for more information on this subject. On the Advanced MSI Compilation page, a scheduled task inside an MSI file is explained in more detail, including trigger types.

Other compilation types

If we look at the first screen of the wizard and click the "Installation type" drop-down list, there are more options for the behavior of the MSI file with the Enterprise and Platinum editions:

MSI installation types

Apart from installation packages and scheduled tasks, there are three more options. Compiling into a Windows Service will make the script execute all the time as a Windows Service. The script you are constructing must never end. This means that your Windows Service script would typically end with a Sleep command (a break) followed by a Goto statement to go to the top of the script to make it execute recurrently.

You can also compile a script into a Windows Explorer startup item. You can get similar behavior by using a Logon Trigger in a scheduled task, but this trigger type is only supported from Windows Vista and newer. So if you need to execute a script when a user logs on and you don't have FastTrack Logon set up, you can use this type of compilation to initiate the script execution, when a user who also works with Windows XP logs on.

The last option "FastTrack Scripting Host Runtime Package" will create a small installation package that installs fsh.exe (the engine) and a copy of your license key file into the program files directory on the executing computer. It will perform a system-wide association of .fsh files to the installed fsh.exe file. Note that if you are using FastTrack Logon, it is not necessary to deploy the run-time fsh.exe to workstations. Generated MSI or exe files do not need the run-time either.

Only this last installation type will install a copy of FSH.exe. What happens is that when your MSI file is executed, your package files are extracted to a temporary folder and executed without requiring the run-time fsh.exe to be installed on the executing computer. The script that you opened when you created the MSI package is the boot script that is included and executed. Once the script is complete, all temporary files are deleted. If the package is later re-installed or uninstalled, this procedure is repeated.

The Advanced MSI Compilation page here goes through the last three sections in greater detail.
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Rating: 5 out of 5

"Use this as a replacement for VBScript and PowerShell"

"It's easy to include attractive GUI elements in FastTrack scripts, beyond the basic dialog boxes and text input that VBScript offers ... Another powerful feature is the ability to distribute scripts as Windows Installer (.msi) or standard .exe files. Although interesting in its own right, this ability results in a much more intriguing capability: to repackage -- or wrap -- software installers as .msi files without using snapshots. If you've ever created an .msi installer file from before-and-after system snapshots, for use with a software distribution system such as Group Policy or System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), then you know how hit-and-miss the results can be."

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Rating: 8 out of 10

"Faster than the rest"

"We found the FastTrack syntax to be more transparent and easier to learn than Microsoft's PowerShell – the editor in particular provided good support in this regard. Scripting mode offers a large number of options from the command set through to simple output of graphical elements, which cannot be achieved at all with PowerShell or other solutions or only with a significantly greater level of effort."

"Anyone wanting to tackle the many hurdles in everyday admin and especially anyone for whom logon scripts and client automation is a priority will benefit from the variety of functions offered by FastTrack."

Review in English      Review in German

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