An overview of MSI packaging
MSI packaging is almost ubiquitous when dealing with deployment of software on Microsoft Windows. Here we give an overview over the concept, its history, and the methods used to create them.
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1. Background information
Windows Installer, commonly known as MSI from the file extension of its packages, is a Microsoft technology introduced with Office 2000 intended to create more coherency in the area of application deployment and management on Windows.
It represents multiple things; a file format for packages containing elements to install, a service utilized by Windows to install and manage these packages, and the API associated with both these things.
MSI packaging refers to converting installers that do not use Windows Installer to do so, and to customize the installers that are already using it.
2. Why is MSI packaging useful?
MSI packages have several advantages compared to the earlier more loosely used packaging methods:
- Consistent standards for how to deploy packages silently and with various settings
- Easier management of package upgrades and replacements
- Wide support across multiple versions of Windows
- Sector-wide acceptance by all major deployment systems
In any environment where a significant number of computers need to be centrally managed the above features are critically important.
3. Purpose of MSI packaging
For the above reasons, MSI packages are the main choice for deploying applications in enterprise settings. However many common and uncommon applications are not supplied as MSI packages, and those that are often need customizations applied to them to be streamlined for use by the users, things such as:
- Disabling EULAs and various welcome screens
- Disabling automatic updates
- Setting company specific settings such as templates or profiles
4. Things to be aware of when MSI packaging
The main purpose of repackaging or customizing MSI packages is to create a software package that conforms to the required specifications, but there are many secondary concerns as well.
For instance, it is important to have a package that will uninstall cleanly and not leave behind unnecessary items. Also important is ensuring that the package will work correctly on all versions of Windows where it may be used, and that if there are problems, that they will be correctly logged so they can be remedied.
Specifically regarding repackaging non-MSI installers to MSI, it is also important not to include elements into the created package, especially not operating system related elements that could cause unwanted behavior.
5. Software for creating MSI packages
Many tools and utilities exist for repackaging software to MSI packages, and for customizing existing MSI packages. These generally fall into one of two categories:
Large enterprise software suites:
This category includes products such as Flexera AdminStudio, Advanced Installer and historically WISE Package Studio.
These products are characterized by:
- Many features; an attempt to cover every single usage case
- A high price, in particular for service providers
- Often presents a convoluted user interface that overwhelms non-expert users with the possible options
- A tendency to implement custom solutions for MSI functionality
Small packaging tools:
This includes utilities such as Microsoft’s own Orca, InstEd, MakeMSI and others.
They are characterized by:
- Free, or low-cost license
- Very limited in scope, tailored to one specific purpose
- Requires in-depth knowledge in order to use effectively
- A simple user interface
Often most organizations will end up using a single large software suite, and a range of the small packaging tools due to the fact that while the small packaging tools do not support sufficient features to be used alone, they are easier to navigate an often faster to use for packaging experts.
Smart packaging tools:
We created Smart Package Studio in order to unify the strengths of the two categories into a single product:
- A solid range of features for all normal case uses
- An easy to use, friendly user interface
- Strong process integration following package from creation through test and deployment
- A strict adherence to MSI specifications and avoidance of custom non-standard solutions
- A low, fixed-fee licensing cost
For users with limited experience with packaging Smart Package Studio offers an easy entry point into the world of MSI packaging with intelligent features and machine-learning based capturing of legacy installers.
For expert packagers Smart Package Studio offers a full range of features for packaging and a very streamlined process with many automated steps, in order to decrease the amount of time spent on each package.