Track app installations with InCtrl4

Tired of shotgun approaches to program installation? Afraid of getting INIs out your ears? David Parkinson says InCtrl4 can help.

Tracking the installation of an application has almost become an art among system administrators. Many yearn for the definitive desktop image in their corporate network and are paranoid—often rightly so—about the apparent "shotgun" installation methods of some applications.

InCtrl4 generates reports on the Disk Content, Registry, and .INI file changes that are made when applications are installed and presents them in a format that can be studied easily. The program is simple to use, quick to run, and provides a reasonable number of running options without dragging the user into making a dozen or more choices before using the program.

Running the program
To see how the program works, I installed Norton AntiVirus on a Windows 98 system.

Figure A
Note that this 16-bit Windows executable “grays out” the Real Time Reporting Option.

Opening the InCtrl4 application brings you straight to the main configuration screen. First, browse your way to the installation program to be run (in this case, Norton AntiVirus). InCtrl4 will describe it as a 32-bit Windows executable or a 16-bit or other program. This is important when the type of tracking method is selected. One of the methods, Real Time Reporting, is available only with 32-bit Windows executables.

You can add any command-line parameters required for the particular setup of the program and give the end report a meaningful name. You can also select an option to have the report created as a .TXT file or a .CSV file with the given filename. If you do, the other report format is still automatically created with the filename EXTRARPT.ext, which is overwritten if not renamed on the next run of the program.

Other options that are essential to accurately track and provide a meaningful report are the list of drives and the .INI files to include in the report (control.ini, system.ini and win.ini are selected by default), along with any registry keys to exclude from the report.

The Tracking Mode selection has three options to choose from: Real Time Reporting, File Time Comparison, and Disk Contents Comparison. Here's a look at each one.

Real Time Reporting
Real Time Reporting offers the fastest method of installation tracking, although it has some downsides. It works through a .vxd file called Ctrltrap.vxd, monitoring file and registry changes as they happen and reporting on these changes. The advantage of this method is that it doesn't have to spend time making snapshots of the system before and after the application installation and then calculate the changes. Actually, it does take a look at .ini files, as changes to these are not tracked by the .vxd, but this is very quick.

One disadvantage is that this option will work only on Windows 9x and only with a 32-bit Windows installation program. Another problem is that this method does not track changes after a reboot during the installation process, although one of the other methods could be used for this operation.

Back on the plus side, Real Time Reporting enables InCtrl4 to be used without defining an installation program. In this mode, InCtrl4 sits in the background monitoring system activity, capturing any system changes, and logging them to the report file. But again, there are a couple of limitations: Tracking will continue for a maximum of five minutes, and changes made from DOS-based applications will bypass the .vxd and not be tracked.

File Time Comparison
File Time Comparison takes a snapshot of the specified .ini files and the registry before and after the installation and reports on the changes. However, it does not take a snapshot of the current files and directories on the system. Instead, it just reports on the files and directories that have been added or changed based on their time stamp. If they are later than the time the installation started, they are included in the report.

This method can be a lot faster than the Disk Contents Comparison method because it does not snapshot the disk. In addition, it can track changes through a reboot, unlike the Real Time Reporting method.

But one disadvantage is that the report is not as detailed—although if you are really interested in configuration changes rather than the files that are laid down, the level of detail might be sufficient.

Disk Contents Comparison
The Disk Contents Comparison mode makes complete snapshots of the registry, .ini files, and the specified drives. The result is a detailed report: created, deleted, and changed files are included. Also, changes after a reboot are tracked (following the reboot, InCtrl4 automatically loads up and finishes its report).

Read the help file !
InCtrl4 is a reporting tool. As such, it has no functionality for creating application images to roll out applications (such as Veritas WinInstall or SysDiff).

However it is good at what it does:
  • It provides clear reports on the installation activity of applications
  • It does this from a clear interface
  • It gives sensible running options to either include detail or keep the report concise

The only word of warning: Remember InCtrl4's limitations and read the help file all the way through. The help file contains a lot of specific information on the manner in which the program manages system snapshots and tracking methods.

While the help file is long, it provides information  you can use to make sure that no changes are knowingly going to slip through the tracking method you select. On the other hand, you will want to rely on such a program to pick up all configuration changes because you don't know what they are all going to be, or you wouldn't need the tracking program!

This is not a full-fledged system monitor, but it will probably point you to the areas of concern when installs go bad. If it does that much, I think it will have proved its usefulness.
InCtrl4 originally appeared in PC Magazine in January 1999. The copyrighted, freeware utility is designed for use with Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT systems. You can download it from PC Magazine .

David Parkinson lives and works out of the green and pleasant land of the Ribble Valley in the northwest of the UK; he loves football, MS NetMeeting, and reading contemporary fiction. He wishes he could travel more but knows he can't have everything. You can e-mail him at .

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