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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Beyond Tao of the Windows Installer

I was recently reading a blog posted by Andreas Hiltner where they made the complaint:

All of a sudden, InstallShield just died and rendered the whole binary project file useless. 6 hours of work down the drain. Of course we saved early and often, but I did not make backup copies of every single step.

It never fails to amaze me how setup development is treated as a second class development activity and relegated to second class processes. Coding without a version control system and build automation is frankly like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. You might get away with it for awhile, but eventually you'll crash into the ground in a horrific way.

The Tao of the Windows Installer Rule # 7 only partially addresses this:

Rule 7: Work On a Copy
"My file server won't boot and I really need it up and running now!"
"Ok, let's re-install Windows and restore the data from backup."
"What backup ...?"

Been there? Done that? While losing a single MSI package might not be as disastrous as losing your file server, you really don't want to start from scratch because of some accidental corruption.

So, always make a copy of your package before you start work, then work on the copy. That way, it is easy to revert to a known good version if the working one becomes corrupt or has other problems you cannot easily correct.

Unfortunatly this rule assumes that you are editing your packages by hand via Orca ( you've got to be kidding me ) and that you don't have any type of project source, project files and build output ( package ). Editing built packages with ORCA would be something like making IL changes to a compiled .NET assembly and then making copies of the assembly as checkpoints. Again, you've got to be kidding me.

So what should Andreas have done? First, InstallShield can save it's project in XML format via a setting in the Product Information section. Second, the project should have been checked into a source control repository from the moment it was created. Third, build automation should have been wired up from the moment that the project was checked into source control. Now you have your parachute and it's safe to jump out of that perfectly good airplane.

Where I work I have a standard pattern that supports of all my installs. It literally doesn't take more then 10 minutes to get a first time build going for a new setup project. From there anyone on the team can use TFS Team Build to request an install build. Anyone with InstallShield can also check out the source, make changes, and if desired checkin a shelveset and ask for me to peer review it before committing it to the branch.

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