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Interview with Wes Miller, Program Manager: Windows Setup/Deployment

ActiveWin.com: Tell us about yourself – what was your job at Microsoft?

Wes Miller: I was at Microsoft for about 7 ½ years. Though I worked in several different roles, the one I did the longest, and enjoyed the most, was as a Program Manager in the Windows Setup (often called the Windows deployment) team. Prior to that I worked at Slate (http://Slate.msn.com), Sidewalk (bonus points for your readers who remember Sidewalk), and then prior to that, in my first role at Microsoft, I did web development for a group that provided technical training within Microsoft.

ActiveWin.com: How long were you in the setup Program Manager role? What exactly does a Program Manager do at Microsoft?

Wes Miller: I was in that role for close to four years. Though the role differs somewhat depending on what group you’re talking with, I always viewed it as a position that works as a connection between test and development, an overall owner of a feature/technology area, and often the voice of that technology/feature area within and outside of Microsoft. Oh, and answer email. Lots and lots of email.

ActiveWin.com: What features or technologies did you work on most?

Wes Miller: There were two technologies I was the PM for – RIS (Remote Installation Services) and Windows PE (usually referred to using just the name “WinPE”. Since I started after development had started on Whistler – what has come to be known as Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 – RIS had already shipped once (in Windows 2000) so I spent most of my time working on WinPE and defining what we were going to deliver for RIS in Windows Server 2003.

ActiveWin.com: For those unfamiliar with it, what exactly is WinPE? Why was it created? What is it used for?

Wes Miller: WinPE is basically a specialized subset of Windows that can be booted from CD, from the hard disk of a system, or via RIS itself, if a system supports PXE (Preboot eXecution Environment). When it boots it loads a minimal set of the Win32 API, and uses the command prompt (cmd.exe) as its shell. Meaning when you boot it, it looks a whole lot like Windows XP Safe Mode with Command Prompt. WinPE was created to ease deployment of Windows across every platform that Whistler was targeted for (which at the time was just the X86 architecture and the Intel IA64 (Itanium) architecture, but has expanded to include the X64 architecture). The primary booting goal that I recall was to get it CD-booted. Though it was originally intended for deployment – it became viewed as a tool for deployment, recovery, and diagnostics, among other things.

ActiveWin.com: How did WinPE progress from Windows XP to Windows 2003?

Wes Miller: Every release of what was once referred to as “Windows Whistler” has brought some changes to WinPE. The release of XP brought WinPE in its first form. Then Windows XP Service Pack 1 brought two key changes 1: an easier way to boot from a system’s hard disk (the earlier way was even more convoluted and required the use of the Recovery Console to get WinPE booted and 2: the ability to connect to standalone DFS (Distributed File Share) roots. Windows Server 2003’s release brought one key feature, the ability to build Windows PE itself from Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition or Enterprise Edition.

ActiveWin.com: What about with Windows XP Service Pack 2, or the upcoming release of Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1? Any changes there?

Wes Miller:  Absolutely. Service Pack 2 brought with it what was often referred to as “Interim WinPE” – and some key highly requested functionality that we felt needed to be delivered before Windows Codename Longhorn shipped in order to help ease Windows deployment. The key changes are:

  • Optional ability to include the Windows Firewall (for the most secure deployment)

  • Optional ability to include WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation)

  • A more predictable drive letter assignment (it’s now always X)

  • The ability to add additional drivers/devices than network and mass storage, so that hardware can be tested at deployment time if need be.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 brings those changes. Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2003 will have those, and a few new features as well…

ActiveWin.com: What are the new WinPE-specific features for SP1 of Windows Server 2003?

Wes Miller: There are three key features:

  • An X64 version of WinPE

  • Support for booting WinPE from a USB Flash Drive

  • Support for booting WinPE from a RAM disk.

The last feature is I think something people may not realize the benefits of immediately, but once they understand it, will become invaluable. It will allow WinPE to boot from almost any PXE server (today RIS is the only supported PXE server for net-booting WinPE, support for booting from CD and then removing the boot media from the drive, and even booting WinPE from a hard disk and then repartitioning/reformatting the drive it just booted from.

ActiveWin.com: How did WinPE come to be? Did development start with Windows 2000?

Wes Miller: WinPE came about largely because of the ongoing complexity for Microsoft customers using DOS for deployment of X86 systems, and the reality that there was no viable pre-deployment environment for Windows on the Intel Itanium architecture.

Development started after Windows 2000 had shipped and the team began working on what would come to be called Whistler.

ActiveWin.com:  How has WinPE changed in Longhorn?

Wes Miller:  Too early to really go into details (the team is still very heads down on the Windows Server SP1 version of WinPE), but I’m sure there will be some changes to WinPE.

ActiveWin.com:  Do you have any hilarious or outlandish stories from your time at Microsoft that you can share?

Wes Miller:  I remember the day Windows XP shipped – one of the developers down the hall from me had an intern who had returned to school just the day before. Before leaving, the intern left a surprise in this developer’s office. He had apparently been saving juice cans all summer, and created a lovely can mosaic in the window, spelling out XP in the window. It was especially creative in that if you looked up into the window from the outside, you could see XP as well, since he had carefully spun the labels to spell it from that direction as well. If you look carefully at this picture you can see the perspective from both sides.

ActiveWin.com:  Did your group often work with Microsoft Support for customer related issues? If yes, how does customer feedback improve the product?

Wes Miller:  It depends on the PM, and the group. For me I definitely tried my hardest to listen to PSS, hear the issues customers were having with the setup technologies I owned, and see if/how/when we could best address them. I think that Microsoft support provides an invaluable conduit of feedback from real-world consumers. Some of it’s not the feedback that you always like to hear J but that makes it all the more important to listen.

ActiveWin.com:  What are your experiences from working with Microsoft Windows Server MVPs in your role at Microsoft?

Wes Miller:  I enjoyed the opportunities I had to work with the MVP community. Microsoft is lucky to have such a strong community of technical advocates backing up it's products in the global community. Some of my favorite memories were discussing upcoming product/feature direction with MVP's and having them serve as a check and balance that we were (hopefully) doing the right thing.

ActiveWin.com:  Where are you going from here?

Wes Miller: I recently left Microsoft for Winternals Software – www.winternals.com. It’s a huge change for me in that the company is much smaller – but I’m really excited to be at a company that’s taking WinPE, adding their own technical insight into Windows and constantly pushing the boundaries of what people expect software to do for them.


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