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Like many others, my organization has standardized on Windows NT Workstation on the desktop, but we have not yet made the commitment to completely lock down the user's desktop. As a result, we end up unnecessarily reinstalling NT, often because of users corrupting their configuration. Our solution to this problem was to use a commercial drive imaging and partition management package (we chose PowerQuest's Drive Image Pro and Partition Magic) to fully back up the users' system and data partitions. This approach let us manage the worst-case scenario by simply reloading the image file. Often, users could reload the drive image by themselves.

We decided to create four partitions on each user's drive. The first partition contains the OS, the second partition contains the user's data, the third partition holds only the NT paging file, and the fourth partition stores the image file. (Because Partition Magic can resize NTFS partitions without destroying the contents, creating these partitions where previously only one or two existed was not traumatic.) We formatted the first three partitions using NTFS and the fourth one as FAT (so that the drive-imaging package can write to it).

Because Drive Image Pro can compress the partition data, the backup partition needs to be about 60 percent of the total disk space in use on the system and data partitions. Therefore, a 1GB backup partition can accommodate about 1700MB of combined system and data, plenty for our standard NT Workstation installations. In addition, by placing the paging file on a separate partition, we don't back it up needlessly). When required, we create an image of the system and data partitions and write that image as one file to the backup partition. This technique gives us the option of leaving the image in place on the backup partition or uploading the image to a network share and burning it to a CD-R disc. If we choose to create a CD-R disc, we burn a bootable disc containing the image file and the drive imaging software (Drive Image Pro can span multiple discs, if required). If the disk space isn't sufficient to allow online storage, we can boot the NT system with a network client diskette and then write the image to a network share (and immediately burn the image to CD-R disc).

After a critical failure, users can boot the CD-R disc and reload the system either from the fourth partition or the CD-R disc. In the event that the local hard disk fails catastrophically, our users still have a complete snapshot of their system on disc, ready to reload when the technician delivers the replacement hard disk. Total reload time can be under 15 minutes.

So, although our current environment doesn't allow us complete control of the user's system, we can at least minimize the user's inconvenience and loss of productivity while the system is down. Phase two of our process is to standardize on one vendor's hardware platform so we can load new NT installations, complete with our preferred, preconfigured desktop applications, in a similar amount of time.