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Windows Installer turns 15: Who cares?

With many businesses still focused on the "end of XP" (opens in new tab), an important milestone in the story of software integration will slip by largely unnoticed this year, but it should be celebrated by anyone involved in end user computing.

2014 is the time to appreciate that Windows Installer (MSI) technology is 15 years old and still going strong. That is a very long time for a technology to be as relevant and as useful in today's enterprise environments as it was when it was first released in 1999. Originally developed to facilitate the installation of Microsoft Office 2000, there remains a surprising multitude of reasons it's stuck around for so long.

The game changer

MSI was a game-changing technology. It offered a new and much-needed platform for coherent application management, as well as allowing flexible deployment solutions across the space. Most important of all, MSI provided an opportunity to successfully integrate applications from different independent software vendors (ISVs) onto the desktop. This facilitated a much improved user experience for Windows computers and, when implemented correctly, could drastically reduce the likelihood of a "Blue Screen of Death" scenario by finally ending the "DLL Hell" that was widely experienced up until this point.

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The introduction of MSI technology offered so many benefits within the enterprise environment that it would be impossible to name them all here. From a technical perspective, it was intelligent software: Windows Installer offered the ability to roll back the installation if something went wrong, while managing not to break the machine. It could also self heal, trigger a reinstall of missing components if something that was required was inadvertently removed or replaced. It featured DLL integration using Windows file protection, file counting, and a "highest version wins" rule.

It is also worth mentioning Windows Installer's flexible installation options and the customisation opportunities that could be achieved by manipulation of the package to; change shortcuts, pre-configure settings, set permissions, manage licencing etc. All of these features represented a revolutionary step forward in enterprise environment technologies.

But it's not just the technical benefits that make MSI worth celebrating. For businesses there were also the clear fiscal benefits of; a reduced TCO (total cost of ownership) of applications, lower support costs, maintenance, managed upgrade paths, standardised desktops, and an opportunity to automate deployment of software remotely across the enterprise by utilising numerous compatible mechanisms.

By taking advantage of these features, businesses could lower their user downtime across their organisation, helping to increase efficiency of systems, raise productivity and stability. The most useful benefit of all these changes were that they could be quantifiably measured, helping IT managers to show a strong return on investment.

The industry creator

The strength of this technology is highlighted by the fact that it has spawned an entire industry dedicated to application packaging and the preparation of apps for deployment across multiple devices. In this sense I have Windows Installer to thank for my job, since the company for which I work, Camwood (opens in new tab), spends a huge amount of its time helping companies do exactly this when managing application changes and OS migrations.

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As if that wasn't enough, Windows Installer has now been a mainstay for the last nine Microsoft operating systems and service packs. MSI continues to be the de facto choice of release format for Microsoft products (think Office, Visual Studio etc) and their partner ISV's COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) software.

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The principles that underpin MSI technology are the template for the next generation of software delivery methods and formats, specifically sequencing of software within the virtualisation space.

As one example consider the App-V virtual bubble, this was first seen in MSI technology as the isolation technique, and is the next-gen version of that idea.

15 years is a lifetime in technology, but it seems that Windows Installer is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It's evolution (now 5.0) continues to set the standard as the most complete method for application integration, and is the barometer by which all other formats should use to measure their competency against. That is why this year we should all be celebrating the creation of our old friend, Windows Installer.

Leon Halsey is a Consultant with Camwood (opens in new tab)