The one tool all modern Windows admins still require

The golden boot floppy of years past still exists -- but it has morphed into a lighter and more flexible form

I still have my old DOS boot floppy disk, which I used for so many installations of Windows 95 and Windows NT. Eventually I had evolved versions that booted and found my CD-ROM and, later, the network for large-scale deployments. But over time I found myself using a boot floppy less and less as CDs became bootable and the installation became easier. However, every once in a while a circumstance comes up that requires me to boot to a command prompt, have access to drives and the network, and fix a problem or deploy an operating system. You may have to scan for a virus, rescue files, perform testing outside of the operating system -- there are dozens of reasons you may need to boot into a mini-OS that resides directly in your computer's memory. Now where did I put that DOS floppy again?

Obviously new times call for new methods, and there are several good choices for you to work with, given that fewer and fewer computers come with floppy drives any more (the new MacBook Air, for example, uses a thumb drive as a rescue disk).

[ Learn more about deploying Windows by reading J. Peter Bruzzese's "Ready for Windows 7? Here's how to deploy it right." | Follow the latest Windows developments in InfoWorld's Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Consider the following options:

  • Knoppix is a free and open source bootable CD with a collection of Gnu/Linux software. It provides for automatic hardware detection and supports a variety of cards, sound cards, and SCSI and USB devices.
  • Bart PE is a free tool that helps you build a preinstalled environment bootable Windows CD or DVD from the original Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 installation CD. It provides a Win32 environment with an 800-by-600-pixel screen resolution and support for FAT, NTFS, and CDFS file systems.
  • Ultimate Boot CD allows you to boot up from the CD and use a variety of free diagnostic tools that you can burn onto CDs with the provided ISO disc-image files. There are tests for the BIOS, CPU, memory, and disk, along with boot management tools, data recovery, and hard disk tools. It uses a Linux base, but there is an Ultimate Boot CD for Windows based on Bart PE.

Although these tools are certainly excellent and helpful, many administrators -- especially deployment experts -- prefer to stick with the Microsoft Windows PE boot disk. This disk is provided free of charge as part of Microsoft's Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK). There are two editions of WAIK: one for Windows 7, and one for Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. There is also a Windows Server 2008 HPC edition.

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