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A Network Administrator's Best Friend: BartPE

by Mitch Tulloch, author of Windows Server Hacks
12/07/2004

In days of old, when Windows NT ruled the roost, the MS-DOS network boot disk was the administrator's best friend. Using a DOS boot disk and some free utilities, you could partition and format hard disks, perform unattended installs, replace corrupt files on NTFS volumes, and troubleshoot various problems that might occur. Then, when Windows 2000 came along, the new Recovery Console provided an easy way of repairing your system from the command line--but administrators still frequented excellent sites like Bootdisk.com to create DOS boot disks for remote installs, ghosting images, connecting to shares, and so on. Boot disks have one problem, though: there's only so much useful functionality you can store on a floppy disk.

The Microsoft Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) gets around this problem by providing you with a powerful replacement for DOS-based boot disks. Windows PE is basically a bootable CD that contains a minimal version of Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 (depending on whether you use the desktop or server version of the product). Windows PE lets you partition and format disks, access network shares, and run Setup to install Windows on a bare-metal machine. Windows PE also includes powerful scripting capabilities that work with batch scripts and Windows Script Host scripts that allow you to automate the preparation of systems for installing Windows. But Windows PE also has one problem: you need to have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) or Software Assurance Membership (SAM) with Microsoft in order to get it. Merely having an Open or Select licensing agreement isn't enough.

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Enter Bart's Preinstalled Environment (BartPE), developed by Bart Legerweij from Kootwijkerbroek, Netherlands. BartPE is a bootable CD that gives you a minimal Win32 GUI environment with disk and network tools based on Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 installation files. In other words, BartPE is a clone of Windows PE that is available for anyone who wants to use it for installing or troubleshooting Windows-based networks. You should keep a few things in mind, however:

  • BartPE is not a Microsoft product and not a version of Windows PE. It's a completely separate third-party product, so if you use it and muck up your system, don't expect Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS) to help you out, especially if you used BartPE to install Windows on your system.
  • BartPE can be used in ways that can violate the end-user license agreement you agreed to when you bought your copy of Windows XP/2003, so be careful. Basically what this means is that for each BartPE CD you burn, you need a separate Windows XP/2003 license that is not currently used by any other machine on your network.
  • BartPE lets you start only six new processes including the shell, and if you run BartBE for 24 hours continuously, it reboots automatically. The purpose of these limitations is to prevent you from using BartPE as a pirated version of Windows.

Despite these limitations, BartPE is in some ways actually more powerful than Windows PE. For instance:

  • BartPE includes a start menu that gives you quick access to various tools, while Windows XP gives you only a command prompt.
  • BartPE is extensible through plug-ins; numerous plug-ins have been developed by Bart and many others, including well-known vendors like McAfee and Winternals. (Most plug-ins are free, but a few cost money.)
  • PartPE lets you create profiles for different network configurations, including DHCP and manual IP configuration.
  • BartPE also supports Windows XP Home Edition.

Using BartPE and its default set of plug-ins, you can do things like burn in (test) hardware that has no operating system installed, scan your system for viruses and rescue files to network shares, open Remote Desktop Connections to remote machines to manage them, check disks for corruption, partition and format disks, read and write files on NTFS volumes, and more.

Getting Started

To build a BartPE CD, you simply download the latest version of PE Builder and run it on a Windows 2000/XP/2003 machine. Insert your Windows XP/2003 product CD when prompted, and PE Builder extracts the files it needs (see Figure 1) and creates an .iso image, which you can then burn to CD using Nero or some other CD-burning program.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Using PE Builder to build a BartPE .iso file

Once you've burned your BartPE CD, configure your system BIOS to boot from the CD-ROM drive. A Starting BartPE message appears where Starting Windows is normally displayed. Soon the BartPE splash screen appears, and after being prompted to enable network support, you're in. Click on the Go button to open BartPE's start menu and access available tools (Figure 2):

Figure 2
Figure 2. BartPE desktop and start menu

Conclusion

BartPE is a cool tool for administrators who don't have access to Windows PE, and Bart is currently working with CTS (Computer Technology Systems B.V.) to sell PE Builder OEM licenses to software vendors. But Bart says he'll continue to provide PE Builder free to those who want it, and with the growing list of plug-ins available, this product is bound to become one of your favorites in your administrator's toolbox.

Mitch Tulloch is the author of Windows 2000 Administration in a Nutshell, Windows Server 2003 in a Nutshell, and Windows Server Hacks.


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