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Buyer's Guide: Deployment Tools

Tools to use when manually installing client OSs isn’t practical

Installing a client OS isn't difficult; simply follow the wizard's step-by-step instructions and you're off and running. This process is almost foolproof nowadays and is surprisingly similar from OS to OS (e.g., Windows, Linux, Apple). The breakdown occurs when the number of machines that you need to deploy grows out of control. What might work for 1 to 10 OS installations quickly becomes impractical when that number becomes 20, 200, or 2,000 computers.

The tried-and-true solution is to install and configure the OS on just one computer and create what is commonly called the "master image." Typically, the master image will contain software that's common to all computers in the company (e.g., Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader). After the master image is configured just the way you want it, it's deployed to the other computers that need an OS. Usually, you can deploy it to all the computers at the same time. It takes extra time up front to create the master image, but the goal is that OS deployment will take much less time overall.

When using the master-image deployment method, you'll likely run into problems if you try to deploy the master image to different hardware. Creating an image on brand A and attempting to deploy it to brand B would more often than not lead to a blue screen of death because hardware abstraction layers (HALs) can vary between computer brands and between computer models. In addition, they might have different video drivers, drive controller drivers, and other types of drivers. You'll want to know if the vendor you choose has a method to work around this problem in your environment.

After the master image has been created, you'll need to find a way to connect to the image over the network from computers without OSs. Creating a bootable DOS disk isn't practical anymore. It's difficult to find DOS drivers for modern network cards, and floppy disk drives are few and far between. Instead, a network boot (Preboot Execution Environment -- PXE) server is usually used. With this server, all you need to do is press F12 during setup to have the computer boot from the network. If visiting each computer isn't possible, some vendors offer Wake on LAN (WOL) capabilities or clients that let you manage the deployment from a central location.

When the image server starts to send the master image over the network to each computer, there's a possibility that it might interrupt the current network traffic. So, be sure to coordinate this traffic with your network engineers. Depending on how the switches and routers are configured, the network engineers might have a preference for the network protocol you use (e.g., multicast, unicast, anycast, broadcast). In the Buyer's Guide table, you'll find the protocols that each vendor supports.

Another area to consider is how the product is managed. Many administrators prefer to use a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in whenever possible. That way, all the commonly used Microsoft tools (e.g., Active Directory Users and Computers snap-in, DHCP snap-in) and third-party tools (e.g., disk defragmentation snap-in, disk imaging snap-in) are in one spot and easily accessible. If the thought of having to hunt down then open yet another administration application makes you cringe, consider a tool that you can add to your current MMC toolbox.

No two deployment scenarios are the same, so make sure you fully understand the challenges that you currently face along with the goals that you would like to meet. For example, if you support an office full of computers, scheduling the image deployments isn't something that you're likely to be interested in. But if you support computer labs, such as those in a library or school, scheduling a reimage every night or each week might be essential.

Last but certainly not least, you'll want to fully understand the licensing model that each vendor uses. For installations of just a few hundred computers, there might not be that much difference in prices between vendors. But if you have thousands of computers, the different licensing models can make a huge difference. The way products are licensed isn't always the same, so it can be difficult to compare apples to apples without a full understanding of how the licensing works.

After you have narrowed down your search to two products, download the trial versions and kick the tires. Create a master image and deploy it to every brand and model that you currently support. Deployment technology has been around for so long now that the process should seem simple and intuitive. Remember, you'll spend more time up front setting up the master image, but the total time it takes for setup and deployment should be significantly less than if you were to install each computer separately using the wizard.

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