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What is the difference between MSI and EXE Installations?

Every time we need to deploy an application on the Windows platform, we are looking for the setup.exe or another executable file in the software distribution folder. Executable installations have been de-facto standard since early versions of Windows, and they still dominate among other installation types despite MSI packages and Windows Installer being declared as a recommended technology for deployment.

Why are MSI packages are considered to be current and to represent the future of installation, and why does Microsoft want software developers and administrators to repackage installation from EXE to MSI format?

MSI packages are created in compliance with the standard defined by the Microsoft Windows Installer technology. It means that all MSI packages, even those created using different authoring tools, are similar in terms of deployment and management. EXE setups are just executable files that don't have the single standard and therefore are hard to manage in a standard way. Depending on the tool used to produce the setup, an EXE installation may have own installation and uninstallation options, deployment and error handling procedures.

As far as there is no single standard for EXE installations, various vendors of setup authoring tools have created their own rules and guidelines. As a result, setups created with, for example, InstallShield and Wise Studio should be managed differently. It is a major headache for network administrators who are responsible for software infrastructure and who are looking for automatic unattended software installation and uninstallation approaches.

Most of EXE setups don't support installation in a silent mode. A typical EXE setup runs an interactive installation wizard and requires selecting various options and pressing buttons to continue the installation process, etc. To do such an install, administrators have to repeat installation steps on every computer, and it can be very time-consuming if the application must be deployed on hundreds of PCs across the network.

Practical advantages of the MSI format

Support of an automatic installation is one of the main goals pursued the Windows Installer technology. MSI packages support the silent installation mode and can be deployed automatically in the non-interactive mode. Silent installation of MSI packages is activated in a standard way and is supported by the Active Directory Group Policy and other remote deployment tools and technologies. It allows network administrators to install and uninstall software on multiple PCs across the local network in a silent unattended mode. Companies and organizations with more than 25 computers in the network can significantly reduce their software management costs by deploying installations as MSI packages remotely.

How to repackage EXE to MSI?

If a certain software vendor doesn't provide an installation in the MSI format, or if it doesn't support a silent installation, it is nevertheless possible to deploy this installation remotely on multiple PCs across the network. You can use EXE to MSI repackager in order to convert the executable visual setup into an MSI package that is ready for a silent remote deployment. The repackaging process requires that you follow the installation steps in order to capture the installation changes. These changes are used by the repackager to build an MSI package that will apply the same changes as the original visual installation.

Igor Vinnykov is a technology author focusing on Windows administration. He works for a technology company where he helps network administrators to create MSI packages and deploy them remotely. To get examples and advices on the topic, visit the EXE to MSI repackaging knowledge base.

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