Thursday, September 11, 2008

System Imaging

Anyone who has to manage PC's is probably aware of the time consuming task of having to 'setup' a computer from scratch. I'm talking about formatting disk drives, installing an operating system, applying security updates, installing applications, and configuration. This set of tasks can easily consume 4-6-8 hours of time and from a business standpoint is time poorly spent.

There are solutions out there. One approach is to use thin clients or stripped down pc's that only serve the purpose of connecting to a server for all useful applications. This works well for local users needing a very standard set of applications, not terribly well suited for mobile/disconnected users(However some really cool [aka expensive] solutions do exist for this). I personally utilize low spec'd PC's running a next-to-nothing OS install at my workplace - they work great, are cheap to obtain, and last several years. The other type of option is to use system images. System imaging is the concept of creating a "golden" setup that can then be wholesale copied to different computers. While the process of creating the 'golden' image can be time consuming, the benefits are significant. A PC can be taken out of the box, have the image copied to its drive, up and running in less than 30 minutes with a standard set of sofware and configurations. Apply this process to several PC simultaneously and the time savings are huge.

From a support standpoint the use of images creates a very consistent environment to support. A PC can also very quickly be 're-imaged' and returned to the user if is a spare is unavailable. If you're talking about a physical system, creating an image right before testing a new 'something' is also a great backup method.

I initiated the use of images in my current workplace and I can't begin to count the amount of setup, and support time it has saved. I've used Symantec Ghost for imaging in my MS-centric environment over the years and it works very well. I'd love to hear comments about other imaging solutions people have used, commercial or open source.

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2 comments:

Jason said...

We used to use Microsoft RIS in windows 2000, but now we have Altiris. Since sysmantec purchased Altiris about a year ago, ghost will be integrated into altiris in the next version.

steve said...

We've used ghost as you describe for years and it works well, with a major caveat: few systems are 'the same' or 'same enough' for a single ghost image to fit more than the batch of 5-10 machines it was set up on.

Also patching, updates, and software distribution in general are major headaches.

We're moving toward an Active directory GPO approach where when a certain user-type logs in, GPOs fire and install apps for that user type. The installs are done from MSIs created with wininstall, and anytime one of the MSI packages is updated with a patch, the MSI proccess patches the installs for all affected machines.

So we fire up the pre-loaded windows, join the domain, log in as the specific user type, and let it chew it's way through a dozen or so installs.

This has been a huge timesaver compared to manually maintaining the hundreds of ghost images.