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WiX: The Future of Setup/Deployment Projects for Windows Developers

by Jonathan Allen on Dec 08, 2008 |

Team Foundation Server uses MSBuild for continuous integration and on-demand build support. Unfortunately MSBuild has a glaring deficiency, it doesn't support setup/deployment projects. With companies that rely heavily on MSI packages, this makes TFS a hard sell.

The fundamental problem with deployment projects in Visual Studio is that they are literally in Visual Studio. Unlike VB and C#, which have separate compilers, setup/deployment projects can only be built by the Visual Studio IDE itself.

As demonstrated by Nikhil Singhal, there are ways to invoke the VS IDE from a Team Foundation Server build.

The hack is simple. After the compilation of the main solution is done, we invoke the Visual studio command line to build the vdproj project and copy the msi and setup.exe to the appropriate output folder.

According to Buck Hodges of Microsoft, the setup/deployment projects are going to be replaced by WiX in the next version of Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server. WiX, also known as the Windows Installer XML toolset , is a powerful tool for generating Windows MSI packages. WiX 3, currently in beta, exposing all of the Windows Installer 4 features and is compatible with both NAnt and MSBuild.

In what appears to be happening all too often, WiX lacks the rich tool support Microsoft is known for. Even with the Visual Studio add-on Votive, developer will find themselves spending most of their time hand-editing XML files.

WiX has a rather unusual history for a Microsoft project. According to Wikipedia, it is their first project to be released under the Common Public License and is also their first project to be hosted on a non-Microsoft server, specifically SourceForge. WiX has quickly become an indispensible tool at Microsoft and is used for key products such as SQL Server 2005 and Office 2007.

Rob Mensching reports that WiX 3.0 is nearing completion. The latest build, 3.0.4805, is currently available on SourceForge. In addition to the occasional formal build, WiX offers a weekly release for early adopters.

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Big Learning Curve by Carel Lotz

I'm excited about WiX, the MSBuild support and it replacing the VS setup/deployment projects. It does however represent a huge learning curve from the easy VS integrated setup/deployment projects. If MS wants to make the WiX adoption widespread, they will need to either provide some great documentation and samples and/or some additional designer/tool support to make authoring WiX packages a lot easier.

Re: Big Learning Curve by Gonçalo Dias

I share the same opinion. A month ago i have done some analysis regarding wix and this is really hard to work on. It also has other problems like only version 3.0 beta works on vs2008 and there are a lot of changes to version 2.0 and all the examples are in version 2.0. I believe this is a great technology but its learning curve is huge.

I'm excited about WiX, the MSBuild support and it replacing the VS setup/deployment projects. It does however represent a huge learning curve from the easy VS integrated setup/deployment projects. If MS wants to make the WiX adoption widespread, they will need to either provide some great documentation and samples and/or some additional designer/tool support to make authoring WiX packages a lot easier.

Re: Big Learning Curve by Jonathan Allen

You aren't alone, I too am having a lot of trouble learning how to use it.

Re: Big Learning Curve by Jon Arild Tørresdal

I can see that there is a learning curve, but if you are familiar with Windows Installer, InstallShield, Wix or other MSI tools from before, I find WiX to be a great tool. By familiar I mean you know the MSI tables etc. WiX then let you have everything at your fingertips.

I've also used installer tools like InstallShield and Wise for many years. One of the problems with those tools is that you start looking around in odd corners of the UI to find the functionality you're looking for. In WiX you just enter a few characters from the word you think has anything to do with what you're looking for, and intellisense picks up the rest.

I was really skeptical to using XML as the base language of WiX, but with VisualStudio and intellisence, it works great!

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