Ghost's new enterprise features don't meet expectations

IT shops that haven't benefited from disk-cloning software are few and far between. I remember the hours I spent configuring new PCs one by one. I also remember my delight when I found a tool that let me create an image of one PC's configuration and copy the image to other machines. Since that time, competition among cloning software vendors has sparked attempts to improve on the basic cloning concept. To build on the popularity of Norton Ghost, Symantec recently released Norton Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition, which includes Norton Ghost (Symantec's basic cloning tool), MultiCast Server, Norton Ghost Console, and several utilities (e.g., Ghost Walker 6.0).

The Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition executable file, ghost.exe, runs in DOS. The software's easy-to-use graphical interface lets you copy an entire hard disk or individual partitions to another hard disk or to an image file. Version 6.0 supports FAT12, FAT16, FAT32, NTFS, Windows 2000 (Win2K) NTFS (nonencrypted), and Linux ext2. Ghost's interface also lets you use a parallel port to make a peer-to-peer connection to another PC or NetBIOS running on an Ethernet or Token-Ring card. Either method is acceptable for transferring an image file between two PCs or for cloning.

Multicasting takes cloning one step further. MultiCast Server includes a server component that uses TCP/IP multicasting to simultaneously broadcast an image to multiple PCs. Because ghost.exe runs only in DOS, you must create a DOS network boot disk that has a packet driver for each multicast client; however, you'll save time when you need to roll out multiple PCs that have similar configurations.

Norton Ghost Console and Norton Ghost Console Client are the new additions that distinguish Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition from earlier Norton Ghost versions. Ghost Console gives administrators remote capabilities (such as remote cloning scheduling and initiation) and post-cloning configuration capabilities. An administrator can install Ghost Console Client on Win2K, Windows NT, and Windows 9x machines. On Win2K and NT machines, the client software runs as a service and facilitates commands that Ghost Console issues.

I began testing Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition by running the software's basic functions, cloning partitions and drives. I created a DOS boot diskette, copied ghost.exe from the CD-ROM, and began testing Ghost's cloning feature on four NT 4.0 systems, two running Service Pack 4 (SP4) and two running SP5. I ran several disk-to-disk and partition-to-partition cloning operations without incident and recorded an average transfer rate between IDE drives of approximately 85MB per minute. I then saved disk images to files. For disk-to-file operations, you can select a data compression of none, fast, or high. In my test, the fast option provided a good balance of speed and compression (the compression rate was 4 to 1). Restoring the image files to disk took as much time as creating them did, and all the systems I restored booted and ran without incident.

After I confirmed that Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition retains the basic functionality of previous versions, I tested MultiCast Server, which installs with the other Ghost Enterprise Edition components and will run on DOS, Win2K, NT, Win9x, and NetWare 5. The current version of MultiCast Server includes the MultiCast Assist Wizard utility, which simplifies the tedious task of creating network boot disks for multicast clients. After I supplied the required DOS system files, the wizard interface presented me with a list of 68 network card templates from which I could build a network bootable disk that had the packet driver that my multicast clients needed. To let me create my own template, the wizard also supplied network drivers for NICs that its list doesn't include.

Next, I launched MultiCast Server and configured a session. After I named the session, the software let me choose whether to upload an image from a client or multicast an image to several clients. First, I uploaded an image from an NT workstation that I'd configured as a template. I booted the PC using the multicast client disk I'd just created. The packet driver loaded successfully, and ghost.exe, which includes the multicast client, launched successfully. I selected Multicast from the client's menu and connected to the session that I'd configured on the multicast server. The image upload (130MB across a 10Mbps Ethernet link) took a little longer than 3 minutes. Then, I launched another multicast session to broadcast the image to four client PCs, which I booted from disks. Screen 1, shows the Norton Ghost MultiCast Server interface waiting for clients to connect. You can preset a time or number of connected clients to automatically start the multicast session.

After my four test PCs connected to the multicast session, the base image downloaded to all four PCs simultaneously. To avoid ending up with four identical NT workstations on my network, I launched the Ghost Walker 6.0 utility from a DOS boot diskette and used the utility to rename and generate a new, unique SID for each PC I cloned. I then manually rejoined each PC to the domain. Although I performed most of these steps manually, the software provides command-line options to let you automate the process in a batch file. Incorporating the command-line syntax into multicast sessions is fairly easy. Ghost Walker has a random-character generator that can automate SID changing and renaming, which comes in handy if you don't have an established naming scheme for the PCs in your network. If you do have a naming scheme, you must manually rename and change the SID on each PC.

Up to this point, Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition performed well, but I encountered problems when I tested Ghost Console and Ghost Console Client. First, I noticed a precipitous decline in the quality of the documentation. Ghost came with a 175-page paper manual, a 30-page Getting Started Guide in Portable Document Format (PDF), and a 10-page README text file. I had to move among all three documents to glean enough information to set up and use Ghost Console. Symantec's technical support assured me that the company would release a new manual before this article is published.

Ghost Console, which installs during setup, lets you clone and configure PCs remotely. To use this feature, you must install the Ghost Console Client on each client PC's OS and a special Ghost boot partition on each client PC's hard disk. Using these two components, Ghost Console can control the boot process by initiating a reboot and hiding or activating the boot partition as necessary. When you start a cloning task, Ghost Console activates the Ghost boot partition that has the necessary executable files and drivers to launch a multicast session. After the multicast session completes, Ghost Console hides the Ghost boot partition and activates the normal OS partition. After the OS boots, you can manually or automatically configure features such as computer name and domain membership.

To test Ghost Console, I used the MultiCast Assist Wizard to create the Ghost boot partition image. This task is similar to creating a multicast boot diskette, except that the program saves all the drivers and executable files in an image file. I used MultiCast Server to put the image on my test PCs. The only problem I discovered is that laying down a boot partition destroys all existing data on the hard disk. Although this problem might not be serious when you're rolling out new PCs, it makes extending Ghost's enterprise functionality to your existing network PCs labor-intensive and impractical.

After I'd successfully downloaded the Ghost boot partition, I launched Ghost Console. Screen 2 shows the Clone tab on the Properties dialog box, in which I created a task to download the NT base image to my test PCs, change their SIDs and computer names, and join them to the Lab domain. At first, the process of rebooting to the boot partition failed. Symantec's tech support told me that I needed to use system files from DOS 7.0 instead of DOS 6.22. After I upgraded the system files, the boot partition worked well and the Ghost Console task executed successfully. When I rebooted the target PCs, however, I discovered that the clients weren't renamed and hadn't joined the domain. I called Symantec again, and the support staff acknowledged that problems exist in this part of the process. Symantec's support shipped me a patch, which I tested without success. Ghost Console couldn't join my test clients to a domain. According to Symantec, a revision of Ghost Enterprise Edition (available with the new manual by the time of this printing) should resolve the problems.

Overall, I was satisfied with Ghost's core features, but I was disappointed that the enterprise features didn't perform as advertised. If you need a reliable cloning tool for rolling out new PCs, Ghost Standard Edition is the best choice. If Symantec fixes the documentation and the bugs in the enterprise features and your Help desk strategy includes bare-metal reinstallation on problematic network PCs, then you might reduce support costs by using Ghost Enterprise Edition to perform reinstallation tasks remotely.

Norton Ghost 6.0 Enterprise Edition
Contact: Symantec Corporation * 800-441-7234
Web: http://www.symantec.com
Price: $12.30 per node for 100 nodes; volume discounts available for larger installations
Decision Summary:
Pros: Ghost's core features are stable and offer functionality that can save administrators many hours when they roll out new PCs
Cons: Features that differentiate Ghost Enterprise Edition from Ghost Standard Edition have bugs and don't work as advertised; product documentation is poor