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Types of Packages: Non-Virtual Packages – Executable Installers (.EXE)

In the previous article, we were talking about Microsoft Windows Installer. In this part of our blog, we’ll talk about the second largest type of non-virtual application packaging methods – Executable Installers (.EXE). Executable installers (.EXE) represent the second largest type of installers. There are lots of .EXE installer types:
  • InstallShield Executable Installer is created with “Flexera AdminStudio”. This format supports customization by using a response file. It also supports ’silent’ installation mode, which requires no actions from the user. Customization of the installation file is limited, i.e., user can change only certain settings, which were specified by the manufacturer, while creating the installation.
  • InstallShield Executable Installer with wrapped MSI. Having the same origin and being mostly similar to the previous file type, this format does not offer many advanced configuration options as well. Customization options are available via public properties of the .MSI file wrapped into an .EXE file. Frequently, in software packaging factory practice, MSI file is simply extracted from .EXE and can be processed as a regular MSI installer. Naturally, in such cases specific features inherent to InstallShield MSI (specific properties, tables, custom actions) have to be taken into account.
  • NSIS (Nullsoft Scriptable Install System) is an open source project, supported by the dev community. An installation file is produced by compiling a script scenario. NSIS has its own set of free tools and add-ons, but requires developer skills to write a script. Installations support the ‘silent’ mode and can be customized within predefined by manufacturer settings.
  • InnoSetup Executable Installers are created with a freeware open source installer “Inno Setup” made by Jordan Russell. This script based installer supports the ‘silent’ mode and works with response files. Customization opportunities are predetermined by the manufacturer.
  • SFX Archivers (CAB/RAR/ZIP/7z etc.) are, by definition, self-extracting archives. A number of various installation customizations (UI and logics) is supported along with the ‘silent’ installation mode. It is possible to configure and alter the behavior of the self-extracting archive. If need be, the archive can be recreated with new files and registry settings. Having said that, it would be wrong to suppose that SFX archive is a standalone installer. It’s more of a supporting tool, which can unpack files to a certain location and execute a predetermined simple scenario. While it’s very easy to install such files, on contrary to prepare such installation is a rather time-consuming task. Unfortunately, advanced customization and fine-tuning are not available for such installations.
  • Wise Executable Installers are compiled .WSE scripts, primarily developed for a “WISE Package Studio” by Altiris Inc. (now part of Symantec). In order to create a WISE installer, first an installation script has to be written and then compiled. This installer type supports the ‘silent’ mode and can be customized, if allowed by the Vendor. Unfortunately, “WISE Package Studio” is no longer maintained and some modern OS features may not be fully supported. For instance, if you’re working in 64-bit OS, making the final package work as expected won’t be a walk in the park!
Of course, we could go on with this list forever, as there are many other custom-made installers, produced and supported by the manufacturers themselves. Whether to allow customization and include ‘silent’ mode support is completely up to the author of the installer. According to the generally accepted practice, these features nowadays are a must. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss one more non-virtual application packaging method – the most archaic way to install software based on scripts. Stay tuned!

About the Author

is an experienced IT specialist, a leader of Infopulse application packaging team and an analyst in the packaging sphere with 10+ years of experience in support engineering, networking, software installation development, and IT management.
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