3 Disk Imaging Solutions—Redux

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 products—Acronis Snap Deploy, Paragon Deployment Manager, and Symantec Ghost—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 “Next, Next, Next” installation routine hundreds of times, these imaging solutions greatly streamline your deployment. Let’s look at how they stack up.

The Setup

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 “outdated” the minute you create it—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.

Figure 1: The Acronis Snap Deploy management console
Figure 1: The Acronis Snap Deploy management console


Getting the master image. Acronis Snap Deploy offers several ways to import an image of the master computer’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 computer’s hard drive and send it to a network share for later deployment. I tested the bootable ISO image (in a virtual machine—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 granularity—but again, this doesn’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 required—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. I’ve used other products that boast a “client count” feature only to have one computer out of 20 not cooperate—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 instructions” 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 which—if any—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 “universal” across all hardware types.

Paragon Deployment Manager

Paragon Deployment Manager is similar in fit and function to the Acronis product, but it has some added disk utility features that set it apart from both products.  his can be useful if you find yourself jumping back and forth between a disk imaging solution and a disk utility suite during your complex deployments.

Figure 2: The Paragon Deployment Manager console
Figure 2: The Paragon Deployment Manager console


Getting the master image. As soon as you finish installing Paragon Deployment Manager, you’re ready to push an image of your master hard drive up to the network share. You have three boot options that will get you connected to Paragon Deployment Manager: Linux Boot CD, Windows PE Boot CD, and the included PXE server. The PXE server (a free, third-party application called Tftpd32) comes completely configured.

To capture the master image, you first need to map a drive to a network share (preferably the PC that's running Paragon Deployment Manager). To do so, select the Network Configurator and follow the wizard. Although this method worked in my tests, I found it a bit clunky when compared with Acronis’s method. As soon as the client has a path to a network share, select Manual mode to start the copy of the hard drive to the network share. This process is very similar to that of Acronis Snap Deploy.

Deploying the master image. To deploy the master image to just one or two computers, you boot the target PC and manually point it to the server running Paragon Deployment Manager. For a more robust deployment strategy, you need to use Paragon Deployment Manager to create a new Session configuration. The Session can be automatic (in which the clients are set to deploy after they connect to the server), filtered by Session ID (the Session ID is set when the bootable media is created), or filtered by MAC address. One nice feature is the ability to add Post-Config options, such as reboot, power off, update files, and so on. Finally, you can schedule the deployment to recur on a specific schedule. This option could be useful for a weekly class that needs to have fresh computers every Monday morning, for example.

If you aren’t necessarily running the reimage routines on a set schedule, but you need to repeat them from time to time, you’ll want to create a Template. A Template defines a deployment the exact same way a Session does, but it lets you save the setting for later reuse.

Extra features. Paragon Deployment Manager also comes with Hard Drive Manager Professional. This handy utility lets you resize, merge, and undelete partitions; convert file systems; test the hard disk surface; and check the file-system integrity. There’s even a tool to edit or view the individual hard disk sectors.

Symantec Ghost

Symantec Ghost differs from the other two products in this review. Whereas Acronis Snap Deploy and Paragon Deployment Manager are great at capturing an image of a hard drive and deploying it to multiple machines in cold environments (e.g., classrooms, labs), Ghost is designed to live with you and your users in production. The typical scenario in which Ghost shines involves a user who is running XP and needs to be upgraded to Windows 7. This functionality doesn’t make Ghost better or worse than the other two products; it simply provides a solution for a different need. Figure 3 shows the Symantec Ghost console.

Figure 3: The Symantec Ghost console
Figure 3: The Symantec Ghost console


Getting the master image. Ghost ships with and uses a PXE server. You can use a third-party PXE server if you want (Symantec even offers a detailed knowledge base article that can walk you through the setup process), but a PXE server isn’t where Symantec has centered Ghost, so I’m not going to go there. Instead, all the tasks that you need to accomplish are managed from the Symantec Ghost Console.

To capture the master image, you first need to tell the Ghost server where to store the image (called the image definition in earlier versions). Next, you need to create a Capture new image task. This task tells Ghost which machine you want to capture and which drive or partition to include. You accomplish this entire process from the comfort of your desk; you never have to actually visit the computer you’re capturing.

Deploying the master image. As in the previous step, you don’t need to visit the computers that you’re deploying an image to. Create a new task, and choose the operations that you want to perform. In this scenario, you would choose Clone, User Migration: Capture, and User Migration: Restore. Finally, choose the group of machines that you want to deploy to. Save the task, then click Execute. In a couple hours (depending on the amount of data on the user’s computer), the user will be migrated and upgraded to the latest version of Windows.

Extra features. Ghost offers many more features than just the ability to deploy a new image of a hard drive. For starters, there’s the user migration tool. If you’ve ever used XP’s built-in Files and Settings Transfer Wizard, you understand the concept. Ghost lets you capture a user’s files and settings, lay down a fresh image of a new OS, then restore those files and settings again.

Ghostcast Server lets you use Ghost more like Acronis Snap Deploy and Paragon Deployment Manager. It supports unicast, broadcast, and multicast deployments. In order for clients to connect to the Ghostcast Server, you’ll need to get them booted up in some kind of DOS-like environment (e.g., MS-DOS, PC-DOS) with network drivers for your particular network card. Ghost includes the Boot Wizard to help you through this process. Symantec Ghost supports PC-DOS, MS-DOS, Windows PE, and Linux.

What Are Your Goals?

As always, before you make a purchase, be sure to review all the extra tools that come with these products. That being said, your choice of disk-imaging product will probably have more to do with your deployment goals than anything. For simple classroom or lab environments in which your only goal is to get a fresh image applied to a hard drive, Acronis Snap Deploy takes the cake for pure simplicity of deployment. Paragon Deployment Manager has some nice additional tools for manipulating hard drives that some users might find useful.

If you need to deploy OSs onto computers that already have existing users, Ghost is the clear choice. Users get to keep all the data that they forgot to store on the network, their desktop wallpaper stays intact, and you get to perform the entire migration from the comfort of your desk. Does it get much better than that?

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