Applying best practices to packaging software

Note

_benwa is a system administrator and he has authorized Tranquil IT to republish his excellent rant on reddit Developers, you can make sysadmins happier.

Environnement variables

Program directories

  • Not every system uses C:\ as the main drive. Some enterprises use folder redirection, and relocate the Documents folder. Some places in the world don’t speak English and their directories reflect that. Use those environmental variables to make your programs “just work”:

    • %SystemDrive% is the drive where %SystemRoot% is located. You most likely don’t need to actually know this;

    • %SystemRoot% is where the Windows directory is located. You hopefully don’t care about this. Leave the Windows directory alone;

    • %ProgramFiles% is where you should place your program files, preferable in a Company\Program structure;

    • %ProgramFiles(x86)% is where you should place your 32-bit program files. Please update them for 64-bit. 32-bit will eventually be unsupported, and business will be waiting for you to get your shit together for far longer than necessary;

    • %ProgramData% is where you should store data that isn’t user specific, but still needs to be written to by users (Users don’t have write access to this folder either).

      Your program shouldn’t require administrator rights to run as you shouldn’t have us writing to the %ProgramFiles% directory. Also, don’t throw executables in here.

    • %Temp% is where you can process temporary data. Place that data within a unique folder name (maybe a generated GUID perhaps) so you don’t cause an incompatibility with another program. Windows will even do the cleanup for you. Don’t put temporary data in in %ProgramData% or %ProgramFiles%;

    • %AppData% is where you can save the user running your program settings. This is a fantastic location that can by synced with a server and used to quickly and easily migrate a user to a new machine and keep all of their program settings. Don’t put giant or ephemeral files here.

      You could be the cause of a very slow login if you put the wrong stuff here and a machine needs to sync it up. DON’T PUT YOUR PROGRAM FILES HERE. The business decides what software is allowed to run, not you and a bunch of users who may not know how their company’s environment is set up;

    • %LocalAppData% is where you can put bigger files that are specific to a user and computer. You don’t need to sync up a thumbnail cache. They won’t be transferred when a user migrates to a new machine, or logs into a new VDI station, or terminal server. DON’T PUT YOUR PROGRAM FILES HERE EITHER;

Note

More and more of you software editors offer portable versions of your software that will install in and run from %AppData% or %LocalAppData%. Your aim is to let users install software even though they are not Local Administrators and you market that as a feature, although it is more of a security NOGO. Even worse, you tend to make it difficult to find the proprer MSI that would allow your customers to correctly install your software in %ProgramFiles%. Please, make it easy to find your MSI that will install in %ProgramFiles%, this way you’ll make your customer AppLock and Software Restriction Policies work well and their sysadmins happy.

You can get these directory paths through API calls as well if you don’t/can’t use environmental variables.

Logs

  • Use the Windows Event Log for logging. It’ll handle the rotation for you and a sysadmin can forward those logs or do whatever they need to. You can even make your own little area just for your program.

Error codes

Printing

Distribution

Note

Applocker and Software Restriction Policies can be very effective and the management of these policies can be made simpler with WAPT.

Update

  • Want to have your application update for you? That can be fine if the business is okay with it. You can create a scheduled task or service that runs elevated to allow for this without granting the user admin rights. I like the way Chrome Enterprise does it: gives a GPO to set update settings, the max version it will update to (say 81.* to allow all minor updates automatically and major versions are manual), and a service. They also have a GPO to prevent user-based installs;

Note

WAPT is designed for businesses that don’t allow users to run software updates, which is the policy often chosen in large security conscious enterprises.

Version numbers

  • Use semantic versioning (should go in the version property in the installer file and in the Add/Remove Programs list, not in the application title) and have a changelog. You can also have your installer download at a predictable location to allow for automation. A published update path is nice too;

Note

If you apply this practice, then you will make system administrators who deploy your software updates using the WAPT function def_update() very happy!!

GPO

  • ADMX templates are dope;

Note

We completely agree with you _benwa on this at Tranquil IT. If developers advise their customers to use GPOs to deploy their software or system or users settings, then, they must know that GPOs are not fully reliable.

Instead, package your software, your system and user configurations using WAPT. A setup.py is so much easier than an xml file for system admins to audit before deploying.

WAPT packages can be applied recursively to trees of Organisational Units, so your WAPT package will behave in production exactly as a GPO would, just much easier.

License dongles

  • USB license dongles are a sin. Use a regular software or network license. I’m sure there are off the shelf ones so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel;

Note

You can make your software accept a licence key as a parameter in your msi executable.

WAPT can be used to assign licence keys to individual workstations at install using a method that ensures that the licence key can not be read during transport.

Then, if you want your software to call home to check on the validity of the licence, make the routine work with proxies.

Networking

  • Don’t use that damn custom IPv4 input field. Use FDQNs. IPv6 had been around since 1998 and will work with your software if you just give it a chance;

  • The Windows Firewall (can’t really say much about third party ones) is going to stay on. Know the difference between an incoming and outgoing rule. Most likely, your server will need incoming. Most likely, you clients won’t even need an outgoing. Set those up at install time, not launch time. Use Firewall Groups so it’s easy to filter. Don’t use Any rules if you can help it. The goal isn’t to make it work, it’s to make it work securely. If you don’t use version numbers in your install path, you might not even have to remake those rules after every upgrade;

  • Proxies are good for hygiene and proxies are now a default security feature not just in corporate IT environments, but even on small networks. Making your software not compatible with proxies will require the network administrators of your customer to make and maintain special rules in their firewall, just for you. It is easy to code your software to work with proxies, so please do!

PDFs

  • Don’t ship a software that requires allowing javascript to run in PDF readers. Business logic should be run before outputting to a PDF, not after.

Note

PDF files is the file format people use by default to exchange documents. PDF readers are meant to display documents, not execute unsigned programs.