Executive Summary:

In this comparative review, we examine three disk-imaging solutions: Acronis Snap Deploy 2.0, Paragon Drive Backup Professional 8.5, and Symantec Ghost Solution Suite. Our findings will help you determine which of these products would be best suited to helping you deploy, for example, Windows Vista in your environment.

Windows Vista has been available for over a year now, and as this article goes to print, Vista SP1 is just hitting TechNet. Now it’s time to start thinking about how to deploy this major upgrade. If your company has only a few computers, the notion of physically visiting each one is probably reasonable. But if you’re looking at hundreds or even thousands of machines, a disk-imaging product is essential for saving hours of valuable time. Instead of scurrying around to find a copy of the OS, the license key, and someone to babysit an installation, you can use a disk-imaging product to quickly lay down a master image of a hard disk to one or more computers. Of course, to justify the overhead of creating and maintaining that master image, you need to consider how many computers you have in your environment and how many you deploy per year. Those numbers are different for every company, but suffice it to say that an administrator who oversees only 10 computers probably won’t be able to justify the expense.

In this comparative review, I examine three disk-imaging solutions: Acronis Snap Deploy 2.0, Paragon Deployment Manager 8.5 System Builder Edition, and Symantec Ghost Solution Suite. I’m hoping my findings will help you determine which of these products would be best suited to helping you deploy Vista in your environment. To test each product, I used built-in feature sets for deploying a new OS. Each network had a dedicated server running a management console, from which I could manage remote machines, and one other Vista and Windows XP client to test remote management. Each product uses a similar process of copying an entire hard disk to an image file (or files). This image file serves as a master image that the product then copies to a new PC’s hard disk. All three products can utilize a multicast technology with which multiple PCs can receive the master image simultaneously.

Acronis Snap Deploy 2.0
Like the other two companies in this review, Acronis offers a suite of products that target complex disk-imaging projects. I narrowed down to Acronis Snap Deploy for the purposes of this comparative review.

Installation. On the Acronis.com Web site, I found a useful Getting Started guide that helped me begin the installation process. The installation consists of five separate applications, four of which—Management Console, License Server, OS Deploy Server, and PXE Server—are typically installed on one dedicated server. The fifth component is the Management Agent, which you can install on remote clients to permit remote management.

Installing the Management Console and License Server is straightforward. However, be sure to add the licenses you’ve purchased from Acronis before attempting to install the OS Deploy Server; if you don’t, the OS Deploy Server installation will fail when it can’t find any valid licenses. Applying the licenses to the server is a relatively simple process of typing one or more serial numbers. From an email message I received from Acronis, I had five 25-character licenses to type in, and I discovered that they weren’t easy to just copy and paste. Fortunately, I was able to save time by copying the serial numbers into a simple text file and importing them.

Installing the OS Deploy application requires a reboot. If you plan to use a production server to host this portion of Acronis Snap Deploy, be sure to take this necessity into account. The PXE Server element—the final installation piece—installs very quickly and is further configured in the Management Console through a simple wizard. You can also choose to use the PXE server that comes with Remote Installation Service (RIS).

New OS deployment. Like most imaging products, Acronis Snap Deploy recommends that you use Sysprep on the master PC before creating a master image. To create the master image, you can use the Management Agent, but the manual advises against doing so. I decided to use the built-in PXE Server to capture a master image of the Vista PC. I also tried the Create Bootable Media option to produce a bootable disk, ISO image, or RIS server file because some PCs aren’t PXE-enabled. Regardless of whether you boot using the built-in PXE Server, the RIS PXE server, or bootable media, the process is the same: You use the wizard to choose the hard drive to be imaged, select a location to store the image file, select the compression level, and insert any comments you want to add to the image.

At this point, you can also set the IP address, subnet mask, default gateway, and DNS and WINS server if your network doesn’t use DHCP. Through this wizard, you can set the Ethernet speed—a useful setting if, for example, your network engineer sets the switches to 100/FULL. It’s important that you configure the same setting (i.e., AUTO or 100/Full ) on both the network switch and the PC. If one device is set to AUTO and the other to 100/FULL, the NIC will default to 100/Half Duplex and the disk deployment will take an extremely long time.

After you create the master image, you can deploy it to other computers. To do so, you can use the same method you used for taking the image—by utilizing the PXE Server, RIS method, or boot disk. You can also use the Remote Management Console to deploy images. To do so, the target PCs must already have an OS installed and running, and the management agent must be installed. Acronis Snap Deploy also supports images created by Acronis True Image. Figure 1 shows remote clients standing by, ready to accept the new master image.

Additional features. Uniquely, Acronis Snap Deploy allows automatic transfer of files to PCs after the image has been applied. The product’s Acronis Universal Deploy—an add-on option—permits physical- to-virtual (P2V) and virtual-to-physical (V2P) migrations and gives you a great way to deploy images to dissimilar hardware. Acronis Snap Deploy also offers remotemanagement capabilities: After you install the Snap Deploy Management Agent on the target PC, you can manage files, execute applications remotely, and even schedule tasks through the Management Console. That being said, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the product’s remote file-management capabilities, which I can perform with a simple UNC path (e.g., \\computername c$). Also, I could perform most of the features of the Scheduled Tasks tool through Group Policy. Still, remote management is a nice addition.

Help and support. Acronis has a limited support Web site with only a few Knowledge Base articles relating to Snap Deploy. The site’s “online chat” services helped me find answers that I needed, but I endured a long wait; it took two to three minutes for a technician to respond. At one point, an obviously multitasking technician pasted someone else’s answer in my window.

Acronis Snap Deploy 2.0 for PC and Server
Pros: It’s the cheapest solution of the three; clean interface; PXE deployment is easy to set up and works without a hitch
Cons: Lackluster support Web site; clogged “online chat” services
Rating:4 out of 5
Price: $19.99 per PC; $99 per server; volume discounts available
Recommendation: If your budget is tight, I recommend this inexpensive solution for simple OS deployments
Contact: Acronis • www.acronis.com • 877-669-9749

Paragon Deployment Manager 8.5 System Builder Edition
Paragon Software Group offers quite a few backup, disk-imaging, and partition-management products for the business and the home. There’s even a product for completely wiping your hard disk—useful when you’re retiring old systems. A few of the company’s products tackle disk imaging, but after careful consideration, I chose to examine Paragon Deployment Manager 8.5 System Builder Edition.

Installation. The very clean Paragon Deployment Manager installation routine installs five components: Hard Disk Manager, PXE Server, Infrastructure Server, Deployment Console, and Boot Media Builder. You can install all the components on the same machine or individually onto separate machines if you want to distribute the workload. A DHCP server is available if you don’t already have one on your network. Be sure to read the DHCP Server installation screen carefully; the Yes, there is no DHCP server option can be a bit confusing if you don’t read the entire screen. If you already have a DHCP server, the manual provides step-by-step instructions for how to configure the correct DHCP server options to permit the use of the PXE Server component.

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New OS deployment. Like the other two products, Paragon Deployment Manager makes use of a master image, freshly prepared by Microsoft’s Sysprep utility. To create the master image, you use the supplied Hard Disk Manager Professional software on the PC that has the finalized OS setup that you want to deploy. Hard Disk Manager, which closely resembles Paragon’s Drive Backup utility, is full of useful tools. It’s a handy little program that can not only create a master image suitable for mass deployment but can also create new partitions, merge partitions, and even undelete partitions. Unfortunately, Paragon Deployment Manager’s user manual doesn’t provide much help toward creating the image. Instead, the manual suggests, “To know more about Paragon Hard Disk Manager functionality, please consult the program’s help.” The process isn’t terribly difficult, but some basic instructions would have been beneficial. I poked around the interface and found a Create an image of the entire disk icon. After I clicked the icon, the tool walked me through a wizard, and I soon had a master image suitable for deployment.

Deployment of the image occurs from the server or management workstation on which Paragon Deployment Manager installed. The first step is to create a New Session. (You can also create a template that you can use repeatedly.) Here, you select the image to be deployed, the target hard drive (if the PC has two or more drives), and the partition. You can also set the maximum number of PCs to deploy to and perform any post-imaging tasks. (At this point, I had trouble determining what the Maximum number of active targets field was for. My first thought was that it would let me set a limit to ease the server load, but it actually configures the server to wait until the last PC connects before starting the multicast.) Finally, you can set a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule. This kind of scheduling can be particularly useful for classroom or Quality Assurance (QA) lab environments.

The Paragon Software Group Web site touts Paragon Deployment Manager as a great tool for OEMs and system builders to deploy OSs to new computers en masse. With its built-in DHCP and PXE servers and simple interfaces, I agree wholeheartedly.

Additional features. Paragon Deployment Manager offers a selection of templates, with which you can deploy unique images to specific hardware simultaneously. And the included Network Boot Disk Creator has multifaceted value: Not only can you use it to boot PCs that don’t support PXE boot but you can also use it to create new PXE boot images. For example, if you always multicast the images to the PCs (and never unicast), you can use the Network Boot Disk Creator to set the PXE client to always multicast and bypass the unnecessary 10-second countdown that normally lets you choose multicast or unicast.

Paragon Deployment Manager also offers the ability to utilize multiple multicast sessions and session IDs. If you have multiple hardware configurations, you can set up the software to have unique images ready and standing by, as you see in Figure 2. You simply boot the PC with the boot media that corresponds to the image that you want to deploy.

Help and support. Unfortunately, I could find no Paragon Deployment Manager listing in either the Knowledge Base area of the support Web site or the Community Forums. When I called telephone support to get setup assistance, my call ended at an answering machine, which told me to leave a message.

Paragon Deployment Manager 8.5 System Builder Edition
Pros: Scheduled deployments are ideal for classrooms and QA labs; built-in DHCP and PXE servers are easy to set up; included Hard Disk Manager lets you perform backups, create new partitions, merge partitions, and even undelete partitions
Cons: Subpar documentation and Web support; confusing differentiation between System Builder Edition and Enterprise Edition
Rating:3 1/2 out of 5
Price: $375, plus $29.95 per deployment license; volume discounts available
Recommendation: If you build systems or need to deploy different images to multiple machines simultaneously, Paragon Deployment Manager is worth your consideration.
Contact: Paragon Software Group • www.paragon-software.com • 888-347-5462

Symantec Ghost Solution Suite
What is Ghost, exactly? That question isn’t easy to answer because there are two Ghost products available—and the same company owns both! Norton Ghost (owned by Symantec) is a consumer backup application built on the success of Backup Exec, and is targeted at deployment to a single PC. The other product, Symantec Ghost (or more specifically, Symantec Ghost Solution Suite) is a corporate solution targeted at deployment to multiple PCs. I review the latter product here.

Installation. Ghost’s installation is the easiest and most straightforward of the three products reviewed here. You begin by double- clicking the Symantec Ghost.msi file. Doing so not only installs the client but also installs the Ghost Console, which lets you remotely deploy disk images to machines on the network. Once the console is installed on the administration workstation, it’s time to deploy the Ghost software to the PCs that you want to image. You can use the console’s Remote Client Installation component for this task. However, most PCs’ firewalls will block the use of remote installation, and although you can open specific ports and enable the needed services to use it, a Symantec representative actually recommended not using the remote-installation piece. Instead, you can install the necessary files manually or through your usual application-distribution mechanism (e.g., Active Directory—AD, Group Policy, System Management Server—SMS).

I chose to simply manually install the agent by double-clicking the Client.msi file. The system prompted me to enter the Ghost Console server’s machine name. The wizard explained, If you leave this field empty, the client will connect to the first server it finds. I had only one server (the first XP machine that I installed the Ghost console on), so I chose to just leave the field blank. As soon as the client was installed, the PC showed up in the Default Machine Group.

With the agent installed on the remote machines, I started the Ghost Console application. I noticed first that all new machines end up in the Default Machine Group. Just below the Default Machine Group are the Dynamic Machines Groups. These groups aren’t necessary for Ghost’s operation, and you can delete them if you want; however, they can be useful to help you find specific machines. For example, suppose you want to use Ghost to deploy a new Vista image to all your XP machines. You would start with the pre-defined Windows XP - All Versions group, which Figure 3 shows, and set up a Task to upgrade those machines to Vista.

New OS deployment. Ghost really shines in its OS-deployment functionality; the entire Ghost Console seems devoted to helping you prepare and deploy a new OS. If you’ve ever used Ghost or a similar disk-imaging technology, you understand the basics: Essentially, the system copies a physical disk in its entirety to a file on another disk. This newest version of Ghost adds new features atop the basics. When you use Ghost to upgrade an XP machine to Vista, you can capture the PC’s application settings (e.g., Exchange Server settings in Outlook), grab the user’s profiles, and even exclude certain files or folders from being overwritten.

When I worked through a few deployments, I found the product to be packed full of useful features that simplify new OS deployment. For example, any time you copy a disk and deploy it to another machine, you have to be sure to first run Microsoft’s Sysprep utility. Doing so lets the PC create a new SID the first time it starts. Ghost automates this process for you either by evoking Sysprep just before the reference PC shuts down or by using its SID Walker tool, which changes the SID after the new PC has started. Another timesaver is the ability to save program settings and user data when laying down a new image on top of an existing OS.

Additional features. Suppose you want to deploy Vista only to machines that don’t merely meet the minimum requirements but match Microsoft’s Premium hardwarecapacity requirements. Ghost’s built-in Views and Filter Groups help you narrow down the machines to deploy to. You can alter or add new filters as you need them.

Another cool feature is Network Groups, which help you deploy to specific networks, see how your machines are distributed on the network, and set network data throughput limits. You can also use Network Groups to force multicast, directed broadcast, or unicast mode if another broadcast mode isn’t supported.

Another gem is the Ghost Boot Wizard, which helps you create a network-support DOS boot disk for your computer. Simply run through the wizard, point it to the drivers that you download from the network card vendor, and Ghost will create the boot disk for you. If the Ghost Boot Wizard doesn’t work with your network card, or if you simply can’t find DOS drivers, Ghost can create a Universal Network Driver by using the PXE boot ROM to gain network access.

Help and support. The product’s PDF manual is well laid out. During my testing, I was able to locate everything I needed when a question arose. Also, the Help screens are built-in (requiring no online access), with an easy-to-use search function.

Symantec Ghost Solution Suite
Pros: Multiple options for tuning the deployment scope; useful features to help deploy Vista on an existing XP machine while keeping users’ settings and files
Cons: Price
Rating:5 out of 5
Price: $39.20 per PC; volume discounts available
Recommendation: Addressing the goal of simplifying workstation deployments, this first-class disk-imaging solution gets my Editor’s Choice recommendation.
Contact: Symantec • www.symantec.com • 800-745-6054

Editor’s Choice
All three products let you effectively deploy new OS images. Acronis Snap Deploy and Paragon Deployment Manager function similarly. Of those two, Acronis Snap Deploy is the better choice thanks to its more attractive price point.

However, when it comes to large deployments of a new OS on top of an existing OS (e.g., upgrading to Vista from XP), Symantec Ghost Solution Suite takes the prize. This product's ability to filter on specific hardware, sofware, and even Microsoft hotfixes gives you the deployment flexibility you need for even the most complex projects. I enjoyed working with each product, but this impressive toolset sets Symantec's product apart from the competition, earning it our Editor's Choice designation.