A new look at three image-deployment products focuses on how their functionality differs
Editor's Note: A correction was made to the Symantec Ghost section.
I first reviewed this comparative review's productsâ€”Acronis Snap Deploy, Paragon Deployment Manager, and Symantec Ghostâ€”two and a half years ago, in "3 Disk Imaging Solutions" (InstantDoc ID 98817). Although the market has changed, the basics concepts have remained the same. So, rather than rehash the same functionalities I discussed in that article, this time I want to take a different approach by investigating the features that set the products apart.
The goal of each product is to help you quickly deploy an OS to multiple computers. Instead of inserting a CD/DVD into each computer and running through the typical â€śNext, Next, Nextâ€ť installation routine hundreds of times, these imaging solutions greatly streamline your deployment. Letâ€™s look at how they stack up.
Before I dive into how the individual products work, I'll summarize the task we want to accomplish: Essentially, we want to quickly and easily lay an OS down onto a fresh hard drive. All three products accomplish this task by taking a disk image, then giving you a way to distribute an exact copy of that image to a large number of computers. If you need to install Windows 7 or Windows XP onto just two or three computers, these solutions probably aren't for you; they'll take more time to set up and test than they're worth. But if you need to deploy ten, a hundred, or even a thousand computers, these products will help you immensely. These solutions are also useful for quick redeployment of machines in the wake of a virus infection, or after a computer has been reissued to a new user.
The first step in preparing to deploy an image is to create a master image. Start with a computer that best represents the kinds of systems that you have in your office. Modern versions of Windows do a good job of plug-and-play (PnP) driver installation for devices such as video, network, and sound cards, but they can struggle with major changes that affect the hardware abstraction layer (HAL), such as the type or number of CPUs. Keep this in mind when you're choosing the computer to represent your master image.
After installing the OS that you want to deploy and applying the latest service pack and patches, your next step really depends on your deployment philosophy. Some administrators deploy only the OS, whereas others deploy the OS as well as software such as Microsoft Office. Deploying only the OS allows for a very quick deployment, followed by a flexible installation of specific software via System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), Group Policy, or another method. Deploying the image with both the OS and company software takes longer, but it's a simpler process because the software that users need is automatically installed. The choice is yours, but remember: The master image you create is immediately â€śoutdatedâ€ť the minute you create itâ€”so, the less software you include, the better. I prefer to simply deploy the OS, then use Group Policy to deploy the software packages.
Finally, you need to run Sysprep. Doing so generalizes the computer and removes the computer name and the Security Identifier (SID). You're now ready to create the image, store it on a network share, and deploy it to computers. I'll tackle that discussion in my breakdowns of the three products. (Note that I installed all three products onto a standalone XP client that was not a member of a domain.)
Acronis Snap Deploy
Acronis has a number of products for backup and disaster recovery of Exchange Server, SQL Server, and SBS. Snap Deploy for PCs is targeted specifically to computer support personnel who need to mass-deploy client-based OSs.
Getting the master image. Acronis Snap Deploy offers several ways to import an image of the master computerâ€™s hard drive. The Master Image Creation Wizard lets you create a bootable floppy, bootable CD/DVD, bootable ISO image, or bootable PXE configuration for the Acronis PXE Server. Regardless of the bootable media you choose, the result is the same: Take a cold snapshot of the master computerâ€™s hard drive and send it to a network share for later deployment. I tested the bootable ISO image (in a virtual machineâ€”VM), as well as the bootable image via the included PXE server. Both worked flawlessly.
For some reason, the PXE server that comes with Acronis Snap Deploy requires a setup process. This configuration seemed unnecessary to me because the same settings are available when the bootable media is created (and then imported into the PXE server). This feature does provide for more granularityâ€”but again, this doesnâ€™t offer anything to the technician deploying the image; in other words, it should just come pre-configured.
Deploying the master image. For simple one-computer deployments (e.g., following a virus attack), you can boot up the Acronis Snap Deploy Agent. You use the same boot media that you used to create the master image. A short wizard helps you find the deployment server and the master image you want to deploy.
However, if you have more of a project-type deployment (e.g., for a classroom full of 30 computers), you have to do a little more setup. First, you need to create the bootable media so that there's absolutely no user intervention requiredâ€”again, this can be floppy, CD/DVD, PXE server, and so on. Click Create Bootable Media, and carefully choose the Acronis Snap Deploy Agent with an automatic start of 10 seconds. Doing so will cause the client to boot up the Acronis Snap Deploy Agent and immediately look for the deployment server for further instructions.
Those "further instructions" involve a configuration process via the Deployment and Templates tabs in the Manage Deployment section. First, select Event-Driven Deployment. This short wizard asks you two simple questions: How many computers do you want to connect to the deployment server before it starts pushing out the image? and How many minutes/hours should the deployment server wait until it starts pushing out the image? I appreciate that second question quite a bit. Iâ€™ve used other products that boast a â€śclient countâ€ť feature only to have one computer out of 20 not cooperateâ€”and I don't have a way to just push the image to the other 19. This feature lets you configure the product so that, after an hour, it will simply push the image out to the computers that have connected.
The second set of "further instructionsâ€ť is the template. Acronis templates let you specify machine-specific configuration. First, you select the master image that you want apply a template to. Then, you decide which physical disk to deploy to; determine whether to fit the image to the disk or create a partition; create an account on the target computer; determine a computer name; join a domain; set the IP address; determine whether you want to change the SID; choose files to copy to the target computer; and decide whichâ€”if anyâ€”applications you want to run after the deployment.
Extra features. In addition to its deployment features, Acronis Snap Deploy includes some basic remote management tools. You can create, edit, or delete files, and you can even start applications on remote computers. This functionality requires that you install an agent, so take that into consideration.
If you have a lot of computers with dissimilar hardware, you might want to consider an add-on called Acronis Universal Deploy. Whereas modern Windows versions do a good job of PnP identification for sound and video drivers, it doesn't handle major hardware differences such as the type or number of CPUs, motherboard brands, and so on. Acronis Universal Deploy lets you insert hardware-specific drivers into the image so that your master image is â€śuniversalâ€ť across all hardware types.