Deploy images faster and enjoy centralized management

Drive-imaging programs have been a boon to administrators tasked with deploying PCs in their organization. You configure a system the way you want it, then copy the hard disk's contents (i.e., the image) to another system's hard disk so that the second system is configured the same as the first. Although the basics haven't changed since cloning software's inception, the mechanisms for copying and deploying images have become sophisticated. Some imaging software vendors even incorporate backup, restore, and application-deployment facilities into their products. These new features promise to help administrators deploy images faster and make computer maintenance easier than previously possible. I tested Altiris eXpress 5, PowerQuest Drive Image Pro 4.0, SoftStorage Solutions (formerly IT Infusion) ImageCast, and Symantec Ghost 6.5.1 to see how they handle a variety of cloning tasks.

To test these products, I used an Intel Celeron-based custom-built Windows 2000 Professional system as an image master. I deployed images from that system to my test bed—a rack of 15 computers that had the same hardware configuration as the image master. To test disk-to-disk operations, I employed a Hewlett-Packard HP Vectra VL running Windows NT Workstation 4.0 equipped with a 166MHz Pentium processor and two internal IDE hard disks. To test the products' abilities to support disk-free (i.e., 3.5" disk) environments, I used an HP e-Vectra that had Preboot Execution Environment (PXE)­enabled hardware. I used a dual 800MHz Pentium III Xeon processor Compaq ML530 running NT Server 4.0 as the image server. I attached all the clients and the server to a 100Mbps Ethernet switch and used 100Mbps speeds for network communication.

To Sysprep or Not to Sysprep
Microsoft created Win2K's System Preparation (Sysprep) utility to make the process of imaging Win2K systems more reliable. Understanding where and why its use is appropriate is important.

The decision about whether to use Sysprep might be easy for organizations that rely on Microsoft for technical support because Microsoft will troubleshoot an OS problem on an imaged system only if the customer used Sysprep to create and deploy the image. Beyond support considerations, Sysprep offers latitude for using one image across systems that have similar hardware. In addition, this utility modifies the local computer SID and supports automated functions such as joining a domain. Third-party imaging products don't perform these functions well within a Win2K environment. Some vendors recognize this fact and are integrating Sysprep functions into their imaging products.

To get an idea for how well the products' native tools perform post-image configuration, I used the reviewed products to deploy a Sysprep image, then used the products to deploy a non-Sysprep image. If you're imaging Win2K or NT systems, don't take chances—use Sysprep.

Results
I was disappointed to discover that none of the four products did everything exactly as I wanted. I began testing hopeful that the products' wealth of features was evidence of maturity—features built onto solid foundations. But the nonworking or partially working implementations of many features dashed my hopes. Many of the pitfalls I experienced were Win2K or Active Directory (AD) related. At the time of testing, Win2K had been on the market for almost a year, so I didn't expect problems related to slow Win2K-technology adoption.

All the products I tested have the potential to work well in particular environments: The key is to find a product that offers the features you need to support your imaging process. eXpress boasted the easiest implementation, strong rollout management, and most control over the systems you use it to configure. However, the software's inability to perform a standalone disk-to-disk or disk-to-CD-Recordable (CD-R) copy might deter some organizations. In addition, companies seeking a simpler solution won't want to pay for the features in eXpress that they won't use. Drive Image Pro trailed the competition in the usability department because it lacks a cohesive console for performing rollout-associated imaging actions. But the product's PQPrep utility was easy to use, and Drive Image Pro's strong standalone operations make it a good fit for organizations that perform many single-system cloning operations. ImageCast offers powerful features for workstation configuration and imaging-event management, but the stability of the product's console is a concern. Ghost was a strong competitor with its wide array of features, flexible multicast server, and good performance, but the manual might be confusing for first-time users.

Altiris eXpress 5
eXpress comes on a CD-ROM that includes other offerings from Altiris. Before you can install any of the products, you must get the appropriate license from Altiris (the company emails you a license file). After clicking Install from the CD-ROM's autorun menu, I clicked Solutions for IT Professionals, then clicked Altiris eXpress to extract the setup files and begin the installation process.

At the start of the installation, a menu of options let me view the Setup Guide and gather information for deciding which type of installation to perform. I selected the simple-installation option. The software then prompted me to enter the license activation key location, a destination folder for the application, and an existing account and password for the program to use. I manually created an account for this purpose and provided its name in the format domain\accountname. During the installation, eXpress asked me for a bootable DOS disk with himem.sys, emm386.exe, and ramdrive.sys on it. I prepared the disk on a Windows 98 PC and inserted it into the server. eXpress can use a Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database for scalability or the Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE) for smaller installations. As part of the simple-installation routine, the software installed and configured MSDE on my server. The entire installation process, including disk creation, took about 10 minutes. After the installation completed, the software gave me the option to remotely install clients by selecting a check box. I assumed that this ability would be available within the eXpress console, so I didn't choose to install clients at this time. I printed out the PDF copies of the Express Installation & Setup Guide and User Guide, which were accessible through the autorun menu on the CD-ROM.

Standalone Operation
Altiris built eXpress and its imaging component, RapiDeploy, to be a multicast image-deployment solution. Thus, the software doesn't include facilities for creating an image directly from one disk to another within a standalone system.

Console-Based Operation
In the Altiris eXpress Management Console, which Figure 1 shows, you control all imaging and management tasks. The two small panes, Computers and Events, on the left side of the window let you categorize your lists of computers and events. The large right pane, the details area, displays details for selected items. I followed the instructions in the User Guide for using the Initial Deployment Event from the console. Although more sophisticated deployment scenarios are available within eXpress, this option met my needs. I double-clicked the Initial Deployment Event icon in the Events pane to bring up a Properties page for the event. Settings for deploying an image file and configuring the newly imaged client are on the Configuration Sets and Task Sets tabs of the Properties window. However, before I could configure these tabs' options, I needed to create an image of my image master PC.

Creating the Image
I followed instructions in the User Guide for installing Aclient and BootWorks remotely to my image master. Aclient runs as a service on clients and is responsible for registering clients with the console. BootWorks can run from a bootable disk, a bootable partition on the client, or a PXE boot image. For my test bed PCs, I selected the bootable partition option.

After I installed Aclient on my image master, the software instructed me to reboot the client. I right-clicked the icon for the new client in the Computers pane on the console and selected Power Control, Reboot. To install a BootWorks partition, I right-clicked the icon and selected Advanced, Install BootWorks. eXpress installed the BootWorks partition in seconds and rebooted the client. After the client automatically reconnected to the console, I right-clicked the client's icon and selected Create Quick Disk Image from the resulting menu. I had the option to schedule the operation or run the event immediately. I clicked OK to run it immediately, and the client rebooted into its BootWorks partition to upload an image of its hard disk to the default location on the image server. I watched as the client booted to DOS and launched the RapiDeploy program to create the image. The imaging process copied the image file to the express share on the server in 20 minutes and 10 seconds, and the image master automatically rebooted to Win2K.

Multicasting to the Test Bed
I now had an image file to work with, so I returned to the Initial Deployment Event properties screen. On the Configuration Sets tab, I used the Define Configuration Set dialog box to add a new configuration. I specified a NetBIOS name prefix for the test bed PCs to which I wanted to deploy the image. I entered the name of the domain that the client should join after the imaging process completed and specified OS information (e.g., Registered User, Organization, License Key). I clicked Start Options and chose to process this event in batch mode after all the test bed clients were connected. Alternatively, you can configure eXpress to process the event for each client as it becomes active or to hold all clients and process the event at a specified time.

On the Task Sets tab, I entered the name of the image file to deploy and set downloading that image as the default operation for the event with a timeout of 10 seconds. When a client runs the event with this setting, I wouldn't need to intervene for the image download to proceed. I then opened Boot Disk Creator and selected the BootWorks boot disk option, which had the Run the Initial Deployment Event for computers not already in the database check box selected. I entered the appropriate settings for the clients' NICs and network environment settings, then selected the Create floppy disk sets check box. The software prompted me for the number of boot disks to create, and I specified five. eXpress formatted the five disks without user intervention and copied the necessary boot files to the disks.

I booted the test bed PCs individually from the boot disks and noticed that as each PC came online an entry labeled with that computer's media access control (MAC) address appeared under the Initial Deployment Event on the console. After a PC booted and displayed a Waiting for work to do message, I removed its boot disk and used the disk to boot another system. When the number of clients reached the threshold I had set in the Advanced Options dialog box, the clients counted down from 5 minutes, then launched the RapiDeploy client to download the image. eXpress downloaded the image to all the machines in the test bed in 19 minutes and 51 seconds, then the clients rebooted into Win2K Pro to perform post-imaging configuration.

Altiris's SIDgen utility automatically generated a new SID for each PC after the reboot. However, I ran into a 15-character limit when specifying the name of a domain for the computer to join. The utility changed other configurable items appropriately, but the ripple effect of not being able to join the domain caused a confusing volley of dialog boxes. When I deployed a Sysprep image to the test bed without using Altiris's configuration utilities, I avoided this problem.

Managing Image Files
To view an image file, you can use Altiris ImageExplorer, which you can launch from the Tools menu in the console. This Windows Explorer-like interface lets you extract a subtree from any point in the directory structure an image contains. One minor annoyance is that the software truncates long filenames to the 8.3 convention in the display, so you see many entries that end with ~1. Documentation for ImageExplorer was scant, but in the online Help, I read how to modify text files within an image, replace a file, search for a file, and exclude a file. I tested the various functions, and they performed satisfactorily.

Additional Features
eXpress is a robust client-deployment and management suite that includes tools for application deployment, remote control, and change management. In addition, Alriris integrated a PXE server into eXpress, and you can save boot images directly to the server to create a disk-free deployment environment. From Boot Disk Creator, I opened the configuration for the BootWorks boot disk I had created earlier and created a PXE boot file. I booted the PXE-enabled HP eVectra, and the software presented me with a menu from the Altiris PXE server.

Needs a Little Tweaking
Altiris has worked hard to put together a comprehensive deployment and management solution that can ease administrators' burdens. The PXE boot and remote installation functionality for Aclient and the BootWorks partition minimize the use of 3.5" disks for deployment, and the Altiris eXpress Management Console was fairly intuitive considering all the power it wields. eXpress's multicast uploads and downloads weren't as fast as were those of the other products in the review, but I experienced no problems performing multicast operations. If you need to perform disk-imaging operations on a standalone basis, you should look at other products because eXpress doesn't have direct disk-to-disk imaging capabilities. Overall, I think eXpress lends itself to fully automated deployment better than the other products in this review, but eXpress's additional features might put it out of the price range of organizations looking solely for an imaging solution.

Altiris eXpress 5
Contact: Altiris * 801-226-8500 or 888-252-5551
Web: http://www.altiris.com
Price: $50 per node for 10 to 99 nodes; $48 per node for 100 to 499 nodes; volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Very good automation for deployment; easy-to-use console
Cons: Multicast speed is slower than competition; more expensive than imaging-centric applications; doesn't provide standalone disk-to-disk imaging capabilities

Drive Image Pro 4.0
Drive Image Pro comes with a distribution CD-ROM and a hard-copy User Guide. I inserted the auto-run­enabled CD-ROM into my server, and the software presented me with Install, Create Rescue Diskettes, Documentation, Install DeltaDeploy, Select Language, and Exit menu selections. When I clicked Install, Drive Image Pro informed me that the setup program detected NT Server and that PowerQuest recommends ServerMagic for Win2K and NT servers. I clicked OK, and the installation exited. Drive Image won't run on a Windows server OS, so I installed it on a Win2K Pro workstation. After I clicked Install, the software prompted me to enter the license key from the back of the CD-ROM case and choose an installation directory. The installation process completed in about 1 minute.

A dialog box then launched that let me create a rescue disk, which you use for restoration if you use Drive Image to back up a computer. The rescue disk creation wizard asked whether I wanted to include any special drivers for removable media, then prompted me to insert blank formatted disks for the two rescue disks. The next dialog box notified me that if I wanted to be able to create network- bootable disks, Drive Image would need to copy the Microsoft Network 3.0 Client for MS-DOS files from an NT Server 4.0 CD-ROM. I supplied the CD-ROM, and the software copied the files.

At the end of the installation process, Drive Image Pro presented me with an opportunity to read a readme.txt file and register online. A small note midway through the readme.txt file gave instructions for running PowerCast Server, the multicast server component, from a Win2K Server or NT Server platform. Following these instructions, I copied five files from the Win2K Pro workstation to my server.

Standalone Operation
For instructions about the product's standalone operation, I referred to the User Guide, which provided detailed information about the topic but neglected to mention how to start Drive Image Pro. I assumed that the Boot Disk Builder program that I had installed on the Win2K Pro workstation would be able to create a bootable disk for standalone operation. I launched Boot Disk Builder and chose Standalone Boot Disks from a menu of options that also included PowerCast Boot Disks, Novell NetWare Client Boot Disks, and Microsoft TCP/IP Boot Disks. The builder provided the option of running Drive Image Pro from the disk or another location and let me specify optional command-line parameters for the Drive Image Pro executable.

After creating the disk, I used it to boot the standalone HP Vectra. Drive Image Pro automatically launched and presented me with a menu of choices, including Create Image, Restore Image, and Disk To Disk. I clicked Disk To Disk, and the software prompted me to select the source and destination hard disks. I chose to copy a single NTFS partition from a 1GB hard disk to a 4.3GB hard disk and have the partition expand to use the full capacity of the destination drive. Drive Image Pro displayed a warning message that the operation would destroy the existing partition on the destination hard disk, and I clicked OK to acknowledge that I understood the consequences. I accepted the default selection for partition resizing, which was labeled Automatically resize partitions proportionally to fit. The first attempt took 5 minutes and 56 seconds to check the file system, copy the partition, and expand the partition to fit the destination hard disk capacity. I ran the operation again after going into the Create Image Advanced Options dialog box and clearing the Check file system for errors check box. This time, the operation completed in 4 minutes and 40 seconds. I rebooted the system from the newly imaged hard disk, and everything operated as expected.

Console-Based Operation
To automate imaging, you must install Drive Image Pro's DeltaDeploy tool. Because PowerQuest intended DeltaDeploy for application repackaging and deployment, the tool is more complex than other products' consoles that are dedicated to an imaging application. I installed DeltaDeploy to my image server, then installed the DeltaDeploy client on my image master. After I distributed the image to all my clients, they were addressable through the DeltaDeploy interface. I received informal instructions from a PowerQuest engineer for performing the imaging process with the DeltaDeploy client. You can find specific information about each step in the manual, but not a step-by-step account of the process. Using DeltaDeploy and Task Builder, you can automate imaging functionality, but the applications didn't seem to be well integrated. The overall process was clumsy, and the disparate applications appeared to exist simply for the sake of including many features.

Creating the Image
Drive Image Pro doesn't have integrated tools for changing computer names and SIDs or joining a computer to a domain, I used the software's PQPrep utility on my image master before taking an image of it. I copied the pqprep.exe file from the Win2K Pro workstation to the image master and executed the utility locally. PQPrep copied Win2K's Setup Manager and Sysprep from the Win2K distribution CD-ROM to a temporary directory on the image master. As Figure 2 shows, PQPrep then walked me through creating, modifying, and testing the Sysprep answer file. Creating the answer file from scratch isn't difficult, but PQPrep simplifies the process and adds value through its automated test mechanism. The utility helped me avoid extra work by catching an erroneous domain name that I had entered. When I finished testing the Sysprep answer file, PQPrep saved it and prompted me to boot to a disk and take an image of the system.

I used the Boot Disk Builder to create a Microsoft TCP/IP boot disk and specified that it should map the G drive to a network share containing the Drive Image Pro program. I also specified that the disk should run Drive Image Pro from that mapped drive. I attempted to use this disk to copy an image file from my image master to the image server, but I was unable to get access to any network shares. After I connected to the share that contained the Drive Image Pro executable, I executed it and chose to create an image file on the network share. With medium compression selected, Drive Image Pro created the image file in 8 minutes and 48 seconds.

Multicasting to the Test Bed
I attempted to launch the PowerCast Server by double-clicking the icon for pqpcs32.exe, which I had manually copied to my server, but I received a message that the program needed an additional .dll file. I found pqimgstr.dll on the Win2K Pro workstation and copied it to the same directory that I had copied the other five files to. I was then able to run PowerCast Server. The PowerCast Server interface includes fields in which you can specify the Session Name, Image File name, and Image File Comment. From the interface, you can also specify Resize Options and choose Express Client Mode or Custom Client Mode. The primary difference between PowerCast and multicasting tools available in other products is that PowerCast only transmits images, whereas most other products also can receive an image.

I used the Boot Disk Builder to create PowerCast boot disks for the client and entered a session name when prompted. I launched PowerCast Server on my image server, specified the image file that was created after the PQPrep process, and entered the same session name that I provided when creating the boot disks. I chose to let Drive Image Pro resize the destination partition proportionally. Alternatively, you can tell the software to copy the partition as its original size and leave the remaining space unused.

After I clicked Start, a progress screen appeared with a window for displaying attached clients and a field to select the number of clients that I wanted to connect. I changed that number from the default of 30 to the number of clients in my test bed, then booted the test bed clients from the PowerCast boot disks. The clients were unable to connect to the PowerCast session on my image server, so I abandoned running Drive Image Pro from the server. I moved the image file to the Win2K Pro workstation that had Drive Image Pro installed and launched a PowerCast session from there. This time, all the clients connected, and the PowerCast session automatically started. The software distributed the image to all the clients in 15 minutes and 8 seconds. After the clients rebooted, they automatically performed the Sysprep-driven configuration steps that I had used PQPrep to specify.

Managing Image Files
Drive Image File Editor is a Windows Explorer-like interface for viewing and manipulating the contents of an image file. The images I had created were on a different computer than the main Drive Image Pro application was, so I immediately noticed that the editor lets you open images from only a local drive. I copied the executable and supporting DLL to my server, then ran the executable from there. I opened one of my image files and browsed the contents as if it were a file system. Although I couldn't add or delete any of the files in the image, I could restore files to the local disk from the image. I was also able to split an image file into multiple files and combine split files into one file. From the editor, you can also verify an image file, copy partitions from one image to another, and restore individual files or partitions. The editor provides some useful capabilities; however, you can't modify one or more files within an image without restoring files and taking a new image.

Additional Features
Drive Image Pro can write an image file to select locally attached IDE and SCSI CD writers. I booted a system with an HP cd-writer 9510i from the standalone boot disk and was able to write an image file to a CD-R disc. The software automatically made the CD-ROM bootable, and the CD-ROM operated exceptionally well.

Drive Image Pro also handles spanning multiple media to accommodate large image files. I used the Microsoft RIS Integration option in the Boot Disk Builder to create a RIS menu item pointing to a virtual boot disk that I had created earlier. When I booted the PXE-enabled HP eVectra from the Remote Installation Services (RIS) server, I chose the menu option that Boot Disk Builder created. The boot image provided the same environment as the boot disks but loaded faster and didn't require multiple disks to simultaneously load several machines.

The Drive Image Pro executable supports an extensive array of command-line switches for customizing operations. You can specify switches after the command, or Drive Image Pro can read switches from a text file, which is useful if you have a long string of switches.

In addition, the software includes an application tool, DeltaDeploy, which falls outside the scope of this review. The Professional version of Drive Image Pro comes with a license for PowerQuest's Partition Magic, which the vendor includes on a separate CD-ROM. Partition Magic is a powerful tool for creating, resizing, and managing a variety of partition types.

Lacking in Usability
Drive Image Pro wasn't as easy to use as other products in this review were. Some of the barriers I encountered, such as the inability to run Drive Image Pro on a server platform, were by design. Other problems, however, appeared to be side effects of incorporating a new technology into the product. The lack of a simple console designated for imaging also detracted from the usability of Drive Image Pro. The product let me perform the same types of tasks as the other products in this review, but each task required more work. The slow speed of multicasting an image might also be a concern in some environments.

The standalone operations for disk-to-disk and image file-to-CD writer performed well and were easy to use, and PQPrep did a great job of preparing a Win2K Pro image. If you need a solid product for standalone imaging, Drive Image Pro might be a good choice for you. But if you're looking for a thorough console-based solution, Drive Image Pro doesn't deliver without requiring you to jump through a few hoops.

Drive Image Pro 4.0
Contact: PowerQuest * 801-437-8900 or 800-379-2566
Web: http://www.powerquest.com
Price: $22 per seat for 10 seats; volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Strong standalone operation; PQPrep utility facilitates image preparation
Cons: Usability suffers from roughly integrated components; main application doesn't run on Windows 2000 Server or Windows NT Server

ImageCast
ImageCast comes with a hard-copy manual, installation CD-ROM, and license disk. I inserted the installation CD-ROM into my image server, and the auto-run menu displayed Assistance, Standalone Imaging, Enterprise Imaging, and Workstation Utilities selections. For more detailed installation instructions, you simply click one of the selections.

After reading the selections' descriptions, I selected the Install Control Center option from the Enterprise Imaging selection. The installation prompted me for the license file and asked me to choose Compact, Complete, Custom, or Typical installation. I chose Complete, which installed the ImageCast Control Center, Assistant, ClientBuilder, ImagePrep Utilities, Image Explorer, and Technical Documentation. This installation completed in about 1 minute, and the software prompted me to restart the server. After the reboot, I had two new icons on my desktop: one to launch the ImageCast Control Center and one to launch ImageCast Quick Start. Quick Start lets you run the software's components, or you can launch them from the Start menu's ImageCast item.

Standalone Operation
I launched ClientBuilder to create a boot disk for a standalone cloning operation. A message notified me that by default, the software uses DR-DOS, a royalty-free OS, to create the boot disk. This message also told me that I could specify an alternative OS preference by choosing Floppy Options from the Tools menu. From the Floppy Options item, I selected an option to supply a boot disk, which I created on a Win98 system. The program copied himem.sys and emm386.exe to the disk, then extracted the system files and informed me that it would use the provided system files to create subsequent boot disks.

ClientBuilder's options include Create Multicast Diskettes, Create Standalone Diskettes, and Diskette Updater, which you can use to update existing ImageCast boot disks or convert Ghost boot disks to ImageCast boot disks. I selected the Create Standalone Diskettes option and chose No Network from the resulting drop-down menu. This menu included choices for creating boot disks for other protocols and for NetWare 3.12 or later. I also had the option to add drivers for a wide array of removable media devices. I elected to add the driver for generic IDE CD-ROM disks. The next screen let me build command arguments that would automatically execute a specific imaging task from the boot disk. I wanted to manually configure these tasks, so I didn't select any options.

After configuring the options for creating the boot disk, I clicked Save Configuration so that I could generate this type of disk in the future without repeating the configuration steps. The software formatted the disk and copied the appropriate files' standalone operation. A more transparent format operation would make this step less confusing.

I booted my standalone HP Vectra from my new boot disk, and the ImageCast Client launched automatically. The client's ImageCast Image Wizard presented options for disk-to-disk, disk-to-image file, and image file-to-disk operations. You can also access these operations from the Program menu. I chose a disk-to-disk operation and specified that I wanted to duplicate the entire disk rather than copy specific partitions. I selected the 1GB disk as the source and the 4.3GB disk as the destination, then accepted the default setting to automatically resize partitions to fit the destination drive. The process took 16 minutes and 30 seconds to complete, then the system automatically rebooted. When the system rebooted, the software started Chkdsk. I asked ImageCast representatives about this behavior, and they said it's a typical post-image process to ensure file-system stability and demonstrate to the operator that the image process completed successfully.

ImageCast Control Center Operation
I launched the ImageCast Control Center from the desktop icon, and the software prompted me to set preferences. I browsed the settings under the General, Event Settings, Discovery, Security, and Advanced Settings tabs and left all the items at their default settings. As Figure 3 shows, the ImageCast Control Center consists of four main windows: ImageCast Task Library, Client Resources, Post Configuration Resources, and Image Resources. A smaller window titled ImageCast Assistant offers help for using the console. I used the ImageCast Assistant's Drive Imaging step-by-step dialog box to get up to speed on the product.

Based on my imaging needs, I determined that I needed to install the Post Configuration Injector utility and System Agent utility on my image master computer. I did this from the ImageCast CD-ROM. I accepted the default settings for the System Agent and told the ImageCast Assistant to use the existing FAT partition as its utility partition. You must manually create this partition outside the ImageCast program. The software prompted me to insert a network boot disk into the image master so that it could use files from the disk to prepare the utility partition. I had to return to the image server and run ClientBuilder to create a multicast disk to use for this purpose.

While installing the Post Configuration Injector utility on the image master, the software offered to install Sysprep in addition to ImageCast's configuration tool. I wanted to test ImageCast's configuration tool independently, so I didn't install Sysprep at that time. I specified that I wanted the Post Configuration Injector to run on the first boot. You can set the software to run this utility as a service, but I chose to run it as a program so that I could view changes the utility made. To help automate configuration, I set automatic logon parameters for the software to use on the next reboot. The Post Configuration Injector installed in seconds, and a dialog box warned me that I should create an image of the system before it rebooted into Windows. I shut down the image master, inserted the multicast disk, then restarted the image master.

Creating the Image
The image master PC booted from the multicast disk and automatically loaded the ImageCast Client in multicast mode. According to the documentation, the next step was to create a gather task from the ImageCast Control Center. I located the icon for the image master PC in the image server's Client Resources window. The icon was labeled NOTSPECIFIED1 because I chose to let ImageCast provide client names when I created the multicast disk.

I dragged the icon to the Task window, which launched a New Imaging Task dialog box. For the task type, I selected Gather images from workstations and provided a descriptive name for the task and a filename under which the software would save the task's parameters. The software then prompted me to provide a name for the image file and offered to password-protect the image file.

After providing a name for the image file, I clicked Set, and a properties dialog box appeared for the gather task. This window included options for scheduling the task and let me define configurable success and failure events for the task. After I defined the task, I right-clicked its icon and selected Run Now. I double-clicked the task icon to view the task's progress and watched as the software gathered the image, which took about 20 minutes.

Multicasting to the Test Bed
I used copies of the multicast disk that I had created earlier to boot the computers in the test bed. However, after the clients booted, they were all named NOTSPECIFIED1 in the console. To solve this problem, I ran ClientBuilder and selected the Diskette Updater option to specify a new computer name. I chose the name IC3A01, and ImageCast renamed each disk based on the incremented number at the end of the previous disk's name. I rebooted the clients with the updated disks, and the clients appeared in the console with their new names. I created a new Distribute Task by dragging the icon for my image from the Image Resources window to the Task Library window. Next, I dragged the icons for my test bed computers to the Client List on the task's properties page, then selected the Create Unique SID check box.

Post Configuration Injector Settings
For the Post Configuration Injector utility to run properly without interruption, you need to create and apply a PostConfig profile to each computer that will receive the image. This profile creates a PostConfig settings file that ImageCast copies to the client machine during the image distribution. If you don't apply a profile, you can manually enter settings into the Post Configuration Injector upon the first boot of a newly imaged machine.

I created a PostConfig profile by double-clicking in the Post Configuration Resources window. The Post Configuration Properties dialog box allows for flexible control over environmental and system settings of an imaged system. I specified that ImageCast should change the computer name for each imaged client and tell the computer which domain to join. You can configure the software to apply the PostConfig profile to a client or a task that affects multiple clients. In either case, you drag the profile's icon to the appropriate client or task icon to apply it.

When I tried to apply the profile to a task, I couldn't change the necessary settings, so I created profiles for each machine in the test bed and applied each one to the appropriate client. A representative from ImageCast told me that the beta version I was testing didn't have the profile-to-task functionality enabled yet and that the released version should have no problems applying a profile to a task. I right-clicked the Distribute Task icon and chose Run Now to execute the task.

During the multicast, the ImageCast Control Center appeared to lock up when the time counter and progress counter stopped moving. To my surprise, the clients in the test bed were still receiving the multicast image from the console. After the clients had received the image, I ended the ImageCast Control Center task on the server and rebooted the server. I repeated the distribution procedure to see whether the ImageCast Control Center locked up again. This time, everything went fine, and my test bed was imaged in 10 minutes and 21 seconds.

After the systems rebooted, the Post Configuration Injector waited 30 seconds, then performed its configuration duties. The Post Configuration Injector performed admirably, except that it didn't join the computers to the domain. An ImageCast representative and I determined that a 15-character limitation for domain naming was responsible for this problem. To work around this limitation, I created a new image using the Install Win2Kprep selection rather than the Install PostConfig option.

Win2Kprep is like a Sysprep wrapper: Win2Kprep installed the necessary Sysprep files and stepped me through the Sysprep configuration options. The software displayed the resulting sysprep.inf file, and I was able to edit its contents. I added an identification section to the file to automate joining the domain, then clicked Next. ImageCast presented the option to install Post Configuration Injector. I declined and let Win2Kprep finish configuring the image master system and perform a shutdown. I gathered the new image and distributed it to the test bed with much better results than I had with the Install PostConfig option. However, I did get an Access Violation error message when attempting to gather the image. I closed and reopened the ImageCast Control Center, then performed the gather without any errors.

When imaging with multicast in a mixed Win2K and NT environment, you get the best results from a combination of the Post Configuration Injector and Win2Kprep utilities. Win2Kprep helps ensure compliance with Microsoft's recommendations for imaging, and the Post Configuration Injector lets you modify a wide range of system settings after you distribute an image.

Managing Image Files
ImageCast includes Image Explorer, an application that lets you view and extract image files' contents. The interface looks and operates like Windows Explorer. However, you can use Image Explorer to view and manipulate only FAT partitions. This shortcoming severely limits Image Explorer's usefulness for corporate environments that use NTFS.

Additional Features
ImageCast's System Agent enables additional client control and reporting from the ImageCast Control Center. Shutdown, Execute File, Send File, and Send Message are some of the tasks you can perform from the ImageCast Control Center on a client that has the System Agent installed. The vendor also claims that System Agent supports SNMP to allow integration with enterprise system-management platforms. Event management is a strong point for ImageCast. For any given task, you can configure the software to launch messages, audio alerts, SMTP mail messages, and programs for successful and failed events.

ImageCast doesn't work directly with RIS; however, the product comes with its own PXE server. I installed the PXE server and performed a network boot from a PXE-enabled client. From the default menu options that the PXE server presented, I booted to a DOS ImageCast client session.

ImageCast also includes an application-deployment and update tool called AppImager that works within the ImageCast Control Center environment. This feature was outside the scope of my review, so I didn't test it.

Stability Concerns
When ImageCast worked, it performed tasks as expected. However, I have concerns about the frequent program crashes that I experienced while using the ImageCast Control Center. In addition, ImageCast's performance didn't quite measure up. Both the standalone and network operations were slower than competitors' times for identical tasks. I didn't like the necessity of configuring a specific boot disk for each client; a generic disk with a user-prompted name value would allow for more flexibility.

Aside from the stability concerns, I found the ImageCast Control Center interface useful. It was fairly intuitive, and the drag-and-drop functionality made tasks go smoothly. ImageCast's event-management and Post Configuration Injector features offer a lot of value for enterprise installations.

ImageCast
Contact: SoftStorage Solutions * 262-792-4760 or 800-817-5119
Web: http://www.it-infusion.com
Price: $18 per seat for 10 seats; $11 per seat for 100 seats; volume discounts available
Decision Summary:
Pros: Intuitive console; powerful post-imaging configuration abilities
Cons: Console application is unreliable; imaging process is slower than competitors'; inflexible boot-disk requirements

Symantec Ghost 6.5.1
Ghost comes with one CD-ROM and a hard-copy Implementation Guide. Before I began the installation, I read through the options for installing the software's various components, and I was disappointed to discover that the guide didn't offer more helpful suggestions for installation procedures based on different scenarios.

So that I could perform imaging tasks from a centralized console, I installed Symantec Ghost Enterprise Console on my image server and the Symantec Ghost Console Client on each PC in my deployment test bed. For the image server installation, the product's InstallShield Wizard prompted me to select which component of Ghost I wanted to install: Console, Console Client, or Standard tools only. I accepted the default list of Ghost components, and the program installed them on the image server. The installation then created a domain account that the Ghost service uses to administer client domain membership.

The software informed me that I needed updated ODBC drivers, and I accepted the default option to let the installation routine update my system's drivers. After this process completed, I was prompted to reboot. After rebooting, I used Symantec's Live Update feature to upgrade my installation to version 6.5.1 from the company's Web site.

Standalone Operation
You can use Ghost on a standalone machine to clone a disk or partition to another disk or partition and to clone a disk or partition to or from an image file. I used a boot disk that I created with the Ghost Boot Wizard to launch Ghost for a disk-to-disk clone on my HP Vectra VL. I wanted to clone the contents of the 1GB boot disk, a single NTFS partition, to the system's 4.3GB hard disk and have the partition expand to the full capacity of the destination hard disk. The boot disk automatically launched Ghost, and I selected Local, Disk to Disk from the program's menu. I selected the source and destination disks and accepted the expanded New Size settings for the destination disk.

The software cloned the 710MB of data and expanded the partition in 4 minutes and 21 seconds. I rebooted from the newly cloned disk and everything was the same as on the original disk, except more free space was available.

Starting the Imaging Process
The first step to start the imaging process was to install the Ghost Console Client on the machine I wanted to create an image of. I inserted the Ghost installation CD-ROM into my image master PC and selected Console Client from the list of programs.

After the installation completed, the software displayed instructions for creating a boot disk and console boot partition. Following these instructions, I launched the Ghost Boot Wizard from the image server's Start menu to create a network-bootable disk. Several dozen templates exist to assist in creating boot disks for a wide range of popular NICs. Overall, creating a boot disk from the Ghost Boot Wizard was easy, but if you choose the option to format the disk before you create it, the software presents numerous dialog boxes with configuration options that can be confusing. I then created a console boot partition following a similar process.

Creating the Image
I inserted the new boot disk into my image maser PC and rebooted. The system logged on to the network and opened the same DOS-based interface that I had seen when I performed the disk-to-disk copy. Following the instructions from the Implementation Guide, I launched the Symantec Ghost Multicast Server on the image server to create an image file of the client. I provided a session name, pathname, and image filename, selected the Dump From Client radio button, and clicked Accept Clients. The software presented a Waiting for clients to connect status message.

Instructions in the manual weren't clear at this point, so following my intuition, I returned to the image master and selected Multicasting from the displayed menu. The system prompted me for the multicast session name that I wanted to join, so I typed the name of the session that I had created on the multicast server and clicked OK. After I selected the source disk to create the image from and selected the fast compression option, an image began uploading to the image server. The image master displayed statistics that showed the software uploaded 671MB in 9 minutes and 57 seconds, resulting in a throughput of 67MBps.

I now had an image of my image master stored on the image server, so I proceeded with the console boot partition installation. Installing the console boot partition erases the contents of the hard disk of the client on which you're installing the image, so you must save the image before you install the boot partition. From the Multicast Server interface on the image server, I provided the session name, selected the console boot partition image file that I created with the Ghost Boot Wizard, selected the Load to Clients radio button, then clicked Accept Clients. Again, instructions in the manual weren't detailed. Relying again on intuition, I selected Multicasting on the image master, entered the multicast session name, and provided the image's destination location. After configuring the client, I returned to the image server and clicked Send to begin loading the image. After the software copied the partition, I removed the boot disk and let the system boot to its new partition.

On the image server, I closed the multicast server interface and opened the Symantec Ghost Console, which Figure 4 shows. The console's wizard automatically launched and offered help with images, configurations, and tasks. I discovered that this wizard was merely a shortcut to menu selections, so I disabled it through the Tools menu.

According to the Implementation Guide, my next job was to create a task to clone the image master, so I selected New, Task from the File menu. In the resulting Properties for New Task dialog box, I selected Clone as the only task step and browsed to select the target system (the image master) and the image file. I executed my newly created task by clicking the icon in the console interface and selecting Execute Task from the File menu. This action launched a new multicast server session, after which the image server connected to the image master and began loading the specified image. The image loaded in about 10 minutes, and the client automatically rebooted. At this point, my image master PC was complete with the console boot partition, Win2K image, and Console Client installed.

Multicasting to the Test Bed
On the image server, I opened the Multicast Server application and configured a multicast session to place the console boot partition on participating multicast clients. I then used the Ghost boot disk to boot the 15 clients in my test bed. I had to select Multicasting and configure the session settings before I could remove the disk and use it to boot another client. After all 15 clients were readied, I returned to the image server and verified that 15 connected clients appeared in the status display for the Multicast Server program, then clicked Send. In about 4 seconds, the software installed the boot console partition to all 15 clients.

I restarted the 15 clients so that they would boot to the new partition. On the image server, the Ghost Console interface showed icons for the new client connections, and the software named each icon with the MAC address of the client's NIC. To rename the icons to the client's computer names, I had to match the MAC addresses with the client's computer names and modify the icon names accordingly. A simple prompt for a name during the first client boot would save time and ensure that more recognizable names would appear in the Ghost Console. On the image server, I created a new Machine Group called Test Bed and placed the icons into the group by copying them from the default group.

Next, I needed to address SID, domain membership, and computer-naming concerns. Sysprep handles these problems after the first reboot. To use Ghost's features to address these items, I selected New Configuration from the Ghost Console's File menu. In the resulting Properties for New Configuration dialog box, I configured appropriate settings for the test bed systems. I selected the Allow template settings check box and entered Ghost0* in the Apply Computer Name text box. I saved the configuration as Ghost01, then created a new task to distribute the OS image by selecting New, Task from the File menu. I selected Clone and Configuration as the task steps and browsed to select the target machine group and the image file. On the Properties for New Configuration dialog box, I selected the SID Change check box and selected the Ghost01 configuration as the template for configuration settings.

I then executed the newly created task by clicking its icon and selecting Execute Task from the File menu. This action launched a new multicast server session, and the software waited for all 15 clients to connect before loading the specified image, which took 7 minutes and 57 seconds. The clients then automatically ran the Ghost Walker utility to generate new SIDs and rebooted from the new Win2K partition.

The first time I used this configuration process, the machines in the test bed rebooted just before Win2K finished loading. Symantec provided me with a new build of Ghost Walker, which solved this problem. I then discovered that the software hadn't applied the configuration settings from my template. I traced this problem to the inability of the Ghost installation running on an NT Server system to create the necessary account in a Win2K domain. To join a Win2K Pro system to a Win2K domain, you must specify the DNS domain name, which was bench.win2klab.com. I encountered a problem at this point because Ghost allows only 15 characters for the domain name in the configuration settings. Although deploying the images to the test bed was easy, configuring them was a task best left to Sysprep. Symantec plans to include Sysprep integration features and a longer domain name entry field in Ghost 7.0.

Managing Image Files
Ghost comes with Ghost Explorer, which lets you manage the contents of an image as if it were a file system. You can add, delete, copy, and move files and directories within the image file. However, this utility doesn't support adding and deleting files and directories for an NTFS partition image. Ghost Explorer also includes the Span Split Point function, which lets you set a size at which you want an image file to split to accommodate transfer to multiple media. Although both the administrative and the split functionality are useful features, without the ability to thoroughly modify the files within an NTFS partition image, Ghost Explorer's usability in Win2K and NT environments is limited.

Additional Features
Ghost supports writing images to SCSI tape drives and select IDE and SCSI CD-R writers. The software supports this functionality only on a standalone basis to a local tape or CD-R device. I ran Ghost on a system with an HP cd-writer 9510i and was able to write an image file to a CD-R disc. When writing to a CD-R disc, Ghost automatically handles spanning media. The software can also copy a bootable image to the disc, which creates a self-contained, bootable image and application CD-ROM. To use this feature with my hardware, I had to modify the standalone disks to use Microsoft DOS rather than the default IBM DOS when writing the image.

I also tested the Ghost Boot Wizard's ability to create a RIS boot image by installing the wizard on a RIS server. I effortlessly created a boot image, which the software automatically added to the RIS boot menu. I booted a PXE-enabled HP eVectra through the RIS server and chose the menu option that the Ghost Boot Wizard created. The boot image provided the same environment as the boot disks but loaded faster and didn't require a 3.5" disk to load multiple machines simultaneously.

The Ghost executable supports an extensive array of command-line switches to facilitate using the software within scripts. You can specify switches after a command or set up the software to read them from a text file.

Fine-Tuning Needed
Although I found the breadth of features within Ghost appealing, several of them didn't work on the first try. In addition, the manual's organization was confusing for a first-time user of the product. Many of the problems I encountered wouldn't have presented themselves in an NT environment, but Win2K has been out long enough that major vendors' offerings should support it. However, performance was good, and I had no difficulties creating or loading images. The Live Update feature provides an easy way to update your server software but requires you to recreate the console boot partition on each client to update its contents. In addition, Live Update doesn't store downloaded data on the system, so in the event of a reinstallation, you'll need to repeat the bandwidth-consuming Live Update process.

Symantec Ghost 6.5.1
Contact: Symantec * 408-517-8000 or 800-441-7234
Web: http://www.symantec.com
Price: $13 per PC for a 100-node license
Decision Summary:
Pros: Good performance for local and multicast imaging; flexible multicast server application
Cons: Windows 2000 imaging requires manual preparation; manual might be confusing for first-time users