More windows packaging for vagrant and fixing 1603 errors during MSI installs / by Matt Wrock

This post is largely a follow up to my November post In search of a light weight windows vagrant box. If you are interested in some pointers to get your windows install as small as possible and then package it up into a Hyper-V or VirtualBox vagrant box file, I'd encourage you to read it. this post will cover three main topics:

  • Why a windows box (vagrant or otherwise) may suffer from 1603 errors when installing MSIs (this is why i set out to repackage my boxes)
  • New "gotchas" packaging Hyper-V boxes on the Windows 10 technical preview
  • LZMA vs. GZIP compression...a cage match

Caution: This Installation may be fatal!

While error code 1603 is a standard MSI error code, I can assure you it is never good and in fact it is always fatal. 1603 errors are "Fatal errors." First a quick primer in troubleshooting failed MSI installs.

MSI installs may simply fail silently leaving no clue as to what might have happened. That can be common of many installation errors especially if you are performing a silent install. The install will likely emit an erroneous exit code at the least but perhaps nothing else. This is when it is time to use the log file switch and add some verbosity for good measure. This may assist you in tracking down an actionable error message or flood you with more information than you ever wanted or both.

The log file is usually generated by adding:

/lv c:\some\log\file.log

to your MSIEXEC.exe command. If the install fails, give this file a good look over. It may seem overly cryptic and will largely contain info meant to be meaningful only to its authors but more often than not one can find the root cause of a failed install within this file.

In mid August of 2014, microsoft rolled out an update KB 2918614 that caused many machines to raise this error when installing MSIs. An almost universal fix was found and that was to uninstall KB 2918614. But in this age of rolling forward, rolling back is so 2013. Months later a hotfix was issued KB3000988. In short this error can occur if you have patch KB2918614  and are running an install with an admin user that has never logged into the box before. In my case I was installing the chef client to start a Test-Kitchen run on a newly provisioned vagrant box.

I could manually install the chef client just fine if I hit this error because that entailed actually logging into the box. However after doing this several times it gets really old but running through a full vagrant packaging can be a multi night process that I have been avoiding but can do so no longer.

Packaging Hyper-V Vagrant boxes on windows 10

Tl;dr: you can't.

You can call me a "Negative Nancy" but I refuse to wear your labels. 

Hyper-V has changed the format it uses to store metadata about the VM. This has been stored in XML format until now. When you package a vagrant Hyper-V box, you include this file in the .box package file and then when you import it, vagrant reads from it and extracts the vital pieces of metadata like cores, memory, network info, etc in order to correctly create a new VM based on that data. It does NOT simply import that file since it contains some unique identifiers that could possibly conflict with other VMs on your host system.

Windows 10 uses a binary format to store this data with a .vmcx extension. This is supposed to provide better performance and reliability when changing vm settings. However it also renders a vagrant import doomed. Thankfully, one can still import vagrant boxes packaged in the xml format and Hyper-V will migrate them to the new format, but this migration is unidirectional at the moment.

I'm hoping future releases will be able to export machines in XML format or at the least the .vmcx format will be published so that vagrant contributors can add support to these new boxes. For now, I'm just gonna need to find a pre v10 windows host to create an xml based VM export that I can package. (I accept donations). Funny how I have access to thousands of guest VMs but the only physical windows boxes I work with are my personal laptop and my wife and kids with Windows Home edition (no Hyper-V). So on to creating a VirtualBox box file.

Update: I was able to package a Hyper-V box by simply using the same box artifacts I had used in my previous box and replacing the virtual hard drive with my updated one. It just needs to have the same name. This works as long as the vm metadata equally applies to the new drive which was the case for me.

LZMA compression: smaller payload larger compression/decompression overhead

In my November post I discussed the benefits of using the LZMA format to package the box. This format is more efficient but takes significantly longer to complete the compression. My personal opinion is that compression time is not that important compared with download and decompression time since the former is done far less frequently and can be scheduled "out of band" so to speak. Better compression is even more important with windows boxes because they are significantly larger than *nix flavored machines.

Arthur Maltson commented on twitter the other day that he sticks with gzip over lzma because the lzma decompression is also considerably longer. I hadn't noticed this but I also did not measure it closely. So lets have a closer look at 3 key factors: compressed box size, download time and decompression time.

This week I rebuilt my windows box including the  KB3000988 hotfix mentioned above. I created both an lzma .box file and a gzip version for VirtualBox so I could compare the two. Both are identical in content. The gzip box weighs in at 3.6GB and the lzma version is 2.8GB. About a 22% delta. Not bad but also not as large of a delta as my observations in November.

Anyone can do the math on the download time. I get about 13mbps on my home FIOS internet connection. So the .8GB delta should mean the gzip will take about 9 extra minutes to download assuming I am pulling the box from an online source. I keep my boxes in Azure storage. Now here is the kicker: the LZMA compressed box takes about 6 minutes to decompress compared to about 1 minute with the gzip. So overall I'm saving just under 5 minutes with the LZMA box. A five minutes savings is great but in light of a total one hour download and the two to three hours it took to produce the initial compressed box, I'm thinking the gzip is the winner here. There are other benefits too. For instance this means you are better off simply using the vagrant package command for VirtualBox boxes meaning more simplicity.

Furthermore it is important to note that Vagrant downloads and decompresses the package only once and caches it in your .vagrnt.d folder. All "vagrant up" commands simply copy the previously downloaded and decompressed image to a new VM. So any savings yielded from a smaller download is only rewarded one time per box on any one host assuming you do not explicitly delete the box.