Making a native Windows bootable USB stick (Part 2)

In part 1 I explained how to make a very basic bootable USB or ISO using the Microsoft Automated Deployment Kit. However, when booted that just gives a command prompt, often erroneously referred to as a “DOS prompt” (16 bit apps won’t even run on a 64 bit OS!), which although powerful in its own right, particularly those of us who shun GUIs and embrace command lines, doesn’t give a great user experience. I will therefore cover how we can customise the image which can be done for a variety of reasons:

  1. Add required drivers (needed less often these days due to the large driver set provided by Microsoft)
  2. Add startup scripts to give information about the environment such as disk volumes and network configuration (but not wireless (yet))
  3. Add extra tools (e.g. defragmentation, backup , anti-virus, etc.)
  4. Add a pseudo start menu to aid usability

The first thing we have to do is to mount the boot image (WIM) file so that we can manipulate it. If you have ever installed an operating system from Vista onwards then you will already have used a WIM file as this is usually the largest file on installation media and is effectively a file system within a file. See this link for a detailed explanation if you are so inclined.

To mount the WIM file we use the multi-talented DISM.exe (Deployment Image Servicing and Management) tool in the Deployment and Imaging Tools Environment administrative command prompt that I introduced in part 1. We must first create a folder in a local file system which will become our mount point, which is “c:\temp\wimp” in my examples below. So now we run:

dism /mount-wim /wimfile:"c:\WinPE\media\sources\boot.wim" /index:1 /MountDir:c:\temp\wimp

Which should then give us some folders in the mount point as shown below:

Image

We can now add what we want to this folder hierarchy and once we’re done we simply unmount it, again using DISM.exe, and then create the bootable image again, exactly as described already in part 1.

Note that if you are adding files which you might want to update frequently, such as pattern files for an offline anti-virus scanner, like Trend Micro’s Sysclean, then I tend to not add these to the WIM file put just keep them in a folder on my bootable USB stick.

Now onto the customisation. There are a number of official ways to customise the image but by far and away the easiest in my opinion is to edit the c:\temp\wimp\Windows\System32\startnet.cmd script file which is what is invoked when the WIM file is booted. By default it just contains the “wpeinit” command which initialises the WinPE environment.

My usual startnet.cmd file looks like this:

@echo off
title Guy's Win8.1 x86 WinPE environment
color 0e
echo Initialising ...
wpeinit
\programs\bginfo\bginfo.exe \programs\bginfo\bginfo.bgi /accepteula /silent /timer:0
ipconfig
diskpart /s %SystemDrive%\programs\tools\diskpart.txt
start "" \programs\nu2menu\nu2menu.exe

Which results in the following at boot:

Image

Where BGInfo is the excellent Microsoft/SysInternals Background Info tool that displays system information, such as processor, memory and disk information, as the wallpaper. The file bginfo.bgi is a config file that I saved previously from having running BGInfo interactively and saved the settings to this file.

The diskpart.txt file is just a list of commands to run the diskpart tool such that it will show us information about the hard drives on the system. It contains the following:

list disk
list vol
exit

The \programs folder is one I have created myself and then added in all of the extra, third party, tools that I want to use in the booted image. We’ll cover how to hook this into the excellent NU2menu tool in the next thrilling instalment. Also, look out for information on how we can extend the capabilities of the bootable so that it will also boot live Linux distributions and even DOS all from a single USB stick or ISO.

It’s a good idea to not use driver letters in scripts, etc. because although the system drive is usually X:, I hate making assumptions/hard coding so I either don’t put a drive letter in at all, as above, or use the %systemdrive% environment variable. Be aware though that anything that you actually change or add to this X: drive will be lost as soon as you shutdown, since it is dynamically created from the WIM file, so use a persistent drive, such as a USB stick, if necessary to maintain a file, etc.

Don’t forget to unmount the WIM file when you have finished customising it and before you make any bootable images from it. Ensure that no command prompts, explorer windows, etc. are in your c:\temp\wimp folder, or subfolders, and nothing has files open in this folder otherwise the image will not unmount properly. Then run:

dism /unmount-wim /mountdir:"c:\temp\wimp" /commit

Note that if you want to discard your changes then specify the /discard option in place of /commit.

Lastly, I always put file/path arguments in double quotes not only in case there are spaces in them but also so that file name completion works, by default via the <TAB> key, so the chances of a typo in a path name are greatly reduced.

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Author: guyrleech

I wrote my first (Basic) program in 1980, was a Unix developer after graduation from Manchester University and then became a consultant, initially with Citrix WinFrame, in 1995 and later into Terminal Server/Services and more recently virtualisation, being awarded the VMware vExpert status in 2009 and 2010. I have also had various stints in Technical Pre-Sales, Support and R&D. I work as a Senior Technical Consultant for HCL, live in West Yorkshire, England; have a wife, three children and three dogs and am a keen competitive runner when not injured.

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