The 2Pint Alternate Content Provider

Microsoft allows third parties to create an Alternate Content Provider (ACP) to allow downloads to be handed over to other technologies when the default Microsoft method may not work. The textbook definition from Microsoft:

"An Alternate Content Provider exposes a set of API calls and modifies the function of Data Transfer Services, such that an additional provider other than BITS can be used to retrieve the packages."

There are two types of alternative Content Provider (ACP) types:

  • System – Which requires an install and replaces BITS as the download engine

  • Task Sequence – Requires no installation on the system, and is only called during a Task Sequence, from a Task Sequence, using a Task Sequence variable

The OSD Toolkit uses a Task Sequence only ACP, for all other downloads, BITS is used in conjunction with BranchCache.

BITSACP.exe – The 2PintSoftware Task Sequence ACP

BranchCache is used for Task Sequences in the full OS when they are set to "Download all content locally before starting task sequence" as this means that they are scheduled via BITS. The BITS downloader supports BranchCache on all operating systems. An issue arises when a Deployment is set to "Download when required".

In this case only Enterprise clients can utilize BranchCache as these downloads use HTTP for content transfer and only these systems have native HTTP support for BranchCache. Although Enterprise can work without the ACP, we recommend the use of it for better speed and reliability.

Note: The necessary TS Deployment configuration is modified via a PowerShell script as this is not configurable directly in Configuration Manager. See the next section for details.

On Windows Pro machines custom configuration is required in order to make a "Download content locally when needed by running task sequence" distribution BranchCache enabled. This is configured via BITSACP.exe. This can be seamlessly integrated into any Configuration Manager 2012 task sequence deployment via the use of the Alternative Content Provider (ACP) support.

Note: If you want to use the same downloader on Enterprise in order to utilize the BITS bandwidth mechanism there is nothing stopping you. StifleR customers should always use the BITSACP to allow better monitoring. The BranchCache speed is also greatly improved by using the BITSACP with the turbo function.

Use BranchCache on Windows Pro

As already mentioned, Windows Pro only supports BranchCache through BITS, or any other third party program communicating with BranchCache directly. This means that the "Download all content locally before starting task sequence" settings on Task Sequences Deployments will force the use of BranchCache as the content is downloaded by BITS before the task sequence is executed.

The snag with that setup is that ALL packages referenced by the task sequence are downloaded, even packages that have conditions on them, because the download engine does not evaluate these conditions. To get around this, you can set the Task Sequence deployment instead to: "Download content locally when needed by running task sequence", which makes the task sequence start and then only download packages when the conditions have been evaluated. The problem with this solution is that the Task Sequence downloader uses it’s own download engine rather than BITS.

This means two things:

  1. Downloads are NOT throttled and likely to fail over limited bandwidth WAN pipes.

  2. Downloads are NOT BranchCache enabled on Windows Pro machines as there is no native HTTP support for BranchCache.

The 2Pint Software BITS BC TS Download component BITSACP.exe addresses these issues by:

  1. Acting as an Alternative Content Provider through the Extension provided by Microsoft to allow such third party download providers

  2. Redirecting all Downloads to BITS with BranchCache support & bandwidth management

NOTE: When running a task sequence with an Alternative Content Provider, all downloads are first tried with the ACP. If this returns an error or if the data is not valid the client will automatically fall back to the regular built-in downloader.

Figure 16 A Windows Pro Machine is downloading packages in a task sequence using BITS & BranchCache. Although scheduled to run at 1Mb/s (WAN) it is caching local content at 61Mb/s from already cached content from its peers.

Using an Alternate Content Provider

In an Operating System Deployment scenario, distribution point locations that are stored in task sequence variables are currently inaccessible to an Alternate Content Provider. This means that applications in System Center 2012 Configuration Manager that are written to use the Alternate Content Provider APIs are affected.

Microsoft recognized this short coming in functionality and issued an update. Information on this update and Microsoft Support for ACPs is available in the following knowledge base article:

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2744420

The above article describes the update to support Alternate Content Providers in Task Sequences in System Center 2012 Configuration Manager.

To support an Alternate Content Provider in a Task Sequence, this update introduces the SMSTSDownloadProgram task sequence environment variable.

The SMSTSDownloadProgram task sequence environment variable is specified as follows:

  • A predefined environment variable that contains the path of the downloader program (.exe file) will be set in the SMSTSDownloadProgram task sequence environment variable.

During the download process, the task sequence download library will check the environment variable to verify that there is a defined downloader program. If there is, then this program will be used to perform the download.

The BITSACP.EXE is available in the boot.wim file generated by WinPEGen.exe so there is no need to copy it into the boot image. The "BCEnabler.exe Move" command also moves this to \Windows\System32 for the deployed Operating System.

The following command line parameters are passed to the external downloader program:

  • Package ID

  • Absolute path of the download folder

Notes

  • The Configuration Manager client expects at least one location. The location will be passed to the Alternate Content Provider as it can use the Configuration Manager Distribution Point in certain situations.

  • The Alternate Content Provider can return a fallback code or an error code. When a nonzero code is returned, the Configuration Manager client will fall back to Content Transfer Manager and Data Transfer Service.

  • An Alternate Content Provider will work only inside a Task Sequence. It cannot be called outside of a task sequence.

Implementing the Alternate Content Provider

After all the explanation and environmental tweaks the actual configuration required to kick off the ACP is done in minutes.

First, find the appropriate place in the Task Sequence to add the step that enables the Task Sequence ACP. To ensure that all content is downloaded using the new downloader this would normally be one of the first actions, before any Packages are referenced. When you have determined the best place add a "Set Task Sequence Variable" action from the Add menu. Then give it a name of your liking and set the Task Sequence Variable name to: SMSTSDownloadProgram and set the Value to BITSACP.exe.

Already running computers

If you want to use the ACP for task sequences set to "Download on demand" for already running operating systems you must ensure that the executable is available on the machines on which it is to be run. This can be achieved by either putting the executable in a separate package/program which is then distributed to all machines before reimaging or by copying it to the machine as a part of the task sequence. In order to be safe you can do both - distribute the executable to all systems and also add a step in the task sequence to copy it to Windows if it’s missing.

When the Task Sequence executes, the downloader executable will be called and will start the download. The downloader updates the Task Sequence progress bar accordingly. The following picture shows it in action:

Figure 17 The downloader in action. This shows both the number of files and number of Bytes left to download.

The Downloader creates BITS jobs for each package that is requested by the task sequence. This can be verified by running BITSADMIN.EXE or PowerShell cmdlets to list the download jobs.

Figure 18 BITSADMIN listing active downloads as the Task Sequence is running.

Logging

Event Viewer

A screenshot of a cell phone Description generated with very high confidence

Figure 19 The event logged by BITS after a download. Note the BranchCache data information.

Registry keys

Not logging as such but when BITSACP and BCEnabler run they do write some very useful information to the registry. This happens in WinPE as well as in the full operating system.

The information is written to the HKLM\Software\2Pint Software key.

Under the BCEnabler sub key the following values are written:

  • BCPort - Port for BranchCache to operate on. Default will show 80 (decimal).

  • PreferedContentInformationVersion - Version of BranchCache. Unless specified this will show (2) for a Win8 or later WinPE or (1) for a Win7 (3.1) version of WinPE.

  • CacheRootFolder - the directory under which the cache data is stored.

Figure 20 The port and path to the files being used by BranchCache. These are updated at Boot and at Enable and Move steps.

The ACP writes package information to a separate key for each located under the BITSTS key.

Figure 21 Generic information written under the main key. Each package then has its own key underneath the BITSTS key in HKLM\Software\2Pint Software\BITSTS

For each package the following information from the BITS job is written to a key underneath the BITS registry key. The name of the value is in the format of the ContentID such as R1101234.

The data stored is:

  • Number of bytes from the DP

  • Number of bytes downloaded from peers (also de-duplicated data)

  • Total bytes of the content

  • Total bytes downloaded

  • Number of files in the content

  • Number for files transferred in the content

NOTE: This data may be used to create custom or other action in the task sequence.

Figure 22 Data and statistics for a package being downloaded. Note that the BranchCache statistics are not available until the download has completed.

Troubleshooting

  • The status of a package can be monitored directly from the registry as it downloads.

  • If no data is coming from BranchCache check clients and firewall settings.

  • From the command prompt enter

>netsh.exe BranchCache show status all

while the download is happening. If data is being loaded into the cache but not from BranchCache Peers it is likely to be a firewall/port issue. (Assuming that the other clients have the required data cached)

  • To view the attempted network connection type "netstat –n", it should list the attempted BranchCache connections.

Custom WinPE Language

Customizing the Boot Image with Non-Default (EN-US) language options is supported but requires access to source media with the same language.

For more information on how to create a localized image please review:

https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/hardware/dn938382(v=vs.85).aspx

Example of command lines using DISM.EXE to create a Swedish WinPE version with the language ID of: sv-se

copype amd64 c:\temp\win10amd64

dism.exe /mount-wim /wimfile:C:\temp\win10amd64\media\sources\boot.wim /index:1 /mountdir:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount

Dism /Add-Package /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /PackagePath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\sv-se\lp.cab"

Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /set-allIntl:sv-se

REM Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /Set-UILang:sv-se

REM Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /Set-SysLocale:sv-se

REM Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /Set-UserLocale:sv-se

REM Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /Set-InputLocale:041d:0000041d

REM Dism /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /Set-TimeZone:"W. Europe Standard Time "

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\winpe-wmi.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\winpe-scripting.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\winpe-wds-tools.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\WinPE-SecureStartup.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\sv-se\WinPE-SecureStartup_sv-se.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\sv-se\WinPE-WMI_sv-se.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\sv-se\WinPE-Scripting_sv-se.cab"

dism.exe /image:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /add-package /packagepath:"C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment\amd64\WinPE_OCs\sv-se\WinPE-WDS-Tools_sv-se.cab"

dism.exe /unmount-wim /mountdir:C:\temp\win10amd64\mount /commit

Running the generator is the same as a regular English version, but it will show the non-default language. If the language is not matching the WinPE version it will error.