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Windows Server

Windows Server 2008 : Understanding the Windows AIK (part 3) - Understanding Windows PE

12/27/2010 9:05:16 AM

Understanding Windows PE

Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) is a minimal version of Windows based on the Windows Vista kernel (which is identical to the Windows Server 2008 kernel) that can be used for deployment and troubleshooting purposes. Specifically, you can use Windows PE to:

  • Boot a bare-metal system to install Windows on it. (See Figure 4.) Using Windows PE, you can boot the system, partition and format the hard drives, and connect to a distribution share on the network to copy down disk images and install Windows on the system in either attended or unattended mode as desired.

  • Troubleshoot a system on which Windows is already installed but not functioning properly. Using Windows PE, you can launch Windows RE and run built-in diagnostic and troubleshooting tools. You can also use Windows PE to build a customized recovery solution for automatically recovering or rebuilding computers running Windows.

Figure 4. The Windows PE command shell


In addition to these uses, Windows PE also runs each time you install Windows Server 2008 on a system. The graphic tools displayed during setup are actually running within the Windows PE environment.

As can be seen from Figure A-4, Windows PE presents you with a command-prompt interface from which you can run various built-in tools useful for installation or troubleshooting purposes. The following tools are available from the Windows PE prompt.

Note: What’s the X drive?

The X drive in Windows PE is a RAM disk (a writable volume in memory) used when Windows PE is booted from read-only media such as a CD or DVD, a USB key, or a WDS image. By default, Windows PE allocates 32 MB for this RAM disk, but you can customize the size of the RAM drive by using the PEImg.exe utility.


  • Boot Configuration Data This tool can be used to edit the boot configuration data (BCD) store, which describes boot applications and boot application settings. The BCD store in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2003 replaces the Boot.ini used by earlier versions of Windows.

  • Bootsect This tool can be used to restore the boot sector on your computer by updating the master boot code for hard-disk partitions to alternate between BOOTMGR and NTLDR. The tool replaces the FixFAT and FixNTFS tools used in earlier versions of Windows.

  • DiskPart This tool can be used to manage disks, partitions, and volumes both interactively from a command prompt and in automated mode, using scripts.

  • Drvload This tool can be used for adding out-of-box drivers to a booted Windows PE image, using one or more driver .inf files as its inputs.

  • Oscdimg.exe This tool can be used for creating an image (.iso) file of a customized 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows PE, which you can then burn onto CD media to create a bootable Windows PE CD.

  • PEImg.exe This tool can be used to create or modify a Windows PE image, for example, by importing a package, installing a driver, and so on.

  • Winpeshl.ini This tool can be used to customize the default shell for Windows PE to enable you to run your own shell application instead of the default Windows PE command prompt.

  • Wpeinit.exe This tool is used to initialize Windows PE every time Windows PE boots.

More Info: Windows PE tools

For more information about the Windows PE command-line tools, see the section titled “Windows PE Tools Technical Reference” in the Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) User’s Guide of the Windows AIK.


Windows PE was originally designed as a way of initiating Windows Setup on bare-metal systems without using MS-DOS network boot floppies. The first version of Windows PE was based on the Windows XP kernel and was called Windows PE 1.0. When Windows Vista was released, a new version called Windows PE 2.0 was also released and was based on the newer Windows Vista kernel.

Note: Limitations of Windows PE

Windows PE has a number of limitations, which means that it is not intended as an operating system for daily use. For example, Windows PE automatically stops working after 72 hours and reboots, and you can’t remove this limitation. Also, any changes made to the Windows PE registry are lost upon reboot (unless you make the changes when Windows PE is offline). Additionally, Windows PE does not support the .NET Framework, the common language runtime (CLR), or applications packaged as Windows Installer (.msi) files. Finally, Windows PE supports only a subset of Win32 APIs, which limits the applications that can be run on it.


Limitations of MS-DOS Boot Floppies

For many years, real-world administrators used MS-DOS boot floppies to boot bare-metal hardware to perform unattended network installs of Windows operating systems. There are a number of reasons why this practice is on the way out. For example, MS-DOS has:

  • Minimal native networking support.

  • No support for the NTFS file system.

  • No support for 32-bit or 64-bit Windows device drivers.

Because of these limitations—and the difficulty of even finding MS-DOS nowadays or people who know how to customize it—Microsoft developed Windows PE as a new tool for booting computers that have no installed operating system. By way of contrast with MS-DOS boot floppies, Windows PE has:

  • Support for NTFS 5.x, including support for creating and managing dynamic volumes.

  • Support for TCP/IP networking, including a file-sharing client.

  • Support for 32-bit or 64-bit device drivers, depending on the version of Windows PE.

  • Support for booting from CD or DVD media, USB flash devices, and WDS used remotely.


To use Windows PE, you typically use the tools included with the Windows AIK to create a Windows PE build environment and convert it into an .iso file containing the ready-to-run Windows PE operating system. If needed, you can also customize your Windows PE build environment by adding additional tools to it. Then, you use third-party CD-burning software to burn your .iso file to CD media, and the result is a bootable Windows PE CD you can use to launch the installation process on bare-metal hardware.

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