Disk Imaging Software for SMBs

3 popular tools aid desktop deployment and backup

One of my first IT jobs was working on a 2000-seat desktop migration to Windows 2000. Our team faced a daunting set of challenges: preserving locally stored data, managing the array of drivers required to keep a diverse installed base humming, efficiently deploying managed desktops across a campus. We dubbed our eventual solution "the octopus cart." It was a four-wheeled cart with a server running Symantec Ghost, a switch, and a bag of patch cords. We rolled our cart into an office and idled a dozen workers for two to three hours while we ran a custom backup script, deployed the new OS, restored data, and then dealt with BIOS and driver issues.

With more robust networks and more cooperative hardware and OSs, organizations today prefer desktop deployment over the network to the in-person utility-cart method. Imaging software is at the core of these strategies. I tested three popular tools to find viable imaging solutions for desktop deployment and backup for a small or midsized business (SMB). Symantec Ghost Solution Suite offers systems management features in addition to imaging. The other two products I reviewed—Acronis True Image Workstation and Paragon Software's Paragon Drive Backup Professional focus more narrowly on imaging for backup and deployment.

Key Features
Imaging at its most basic is bundling an entire drive or partition as a file and then restoring it to another partition or drive. Imaging products can serve a business of any size as a long-term investment. Distributed organizations can benefit from centrally controlled imaging that a system administrator can deliver and track from one location.

I used three criteria to evaluate Symantec Ghost Solution Suite, Acronis True Image Workstation, and Paragon Drive Backup Professional. First, I looked at how well each application backs up and recovers individual files or complete disks. Second, I tested how the product performs desktop deployment. You can use any desktop imaging tool to make an exact copy of a hard drive and restore it on other identical machines, but more sophisticated tools can also automate the Microsoft Sysprep utility and driver injection to deploy and manage an OS on varying hardware platforms. Third, I examined the performance of the three imaging products. I used each application to do an identical imaging and restoration job across a network to compare the applications' speed.

Symantec Ghost Solution Suite
The venerable Ghost, purchased by Symantec in 1998, has gone through several iterations over the years. The most recent version, Symantec Ghost Solution Suite, bundles imaging and deployment with some desktop systems management capabilities. Version 1.1 of the suite, which I tested, includes Symantec Ghost 8.3, Symantec Deploy Center 5.6.1, and Symantec Client Migration 3.0.2. In addition to imaging and deployment, Ghost Solution Suite can track the installed base, inventory installed hardware and software, and install new software packages remotely. Think of Ghost Solution Suite as a competitor to Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) with a focus on desktop deployment.

Ghost Solution Suite has an elegant backup and recovery feature. Differential backups can be regularly scheduled and triggered remotely for managed computers, including groups of computers. Each backup or recovery requires the client computer to boot to the Ghost environment, idling anyone who might have been trying to use the computer at the time. The other two imaging products in this review cleverly utilize Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) to create the image without interfering with current operations.

Although Ghost Solution Suite is capable of creating images of Linux machines, it's clearly geared toward Windows, with many Windows- and Active Directory (AD)-specific integration points. For instance, Ghost can migrate a Windows user's data and state. Ghost Solution Suite retains the features that made Ghost the gold standard for imaging, all controlled via a central console. For example, tasks such as deployments can be scheduled.

One particularly useful tool for deployment is Ghost's multicast feature. When you initiate a larger scale image deployment, multiple clients can download a single image transmitted from the console, significantly cutting down on the bandwidth required for remote deployment. Midsized and large companies can benefit from multicasting to reduce the impact of deployment on the network. In addition, Ghost can limit throughput so that a deployment won't saturate the network.

Creating a 4GB image over a network connection took 30 minutes. Restoring the same image to the same workstation took 20 minutes.

A new feature in Ghost Solution Suite is the ability to edit existing images as files. Thus you can make configuration changes or add upgraded applications to an image without creating an entirely new base image.

For midsized and large companies, Symantec offers a panoply of features at an inviting price. These include the ability to inventory the enterprise's software and hardware and deploy software. Considering the array of features, the interface (which Figure 1 shows) is quite clean. However, I'd prefer to see more wizards and fewer tabbed dialog boxes. Ghost Solution Suite has a more gentle learning curve than that of the desktop management powerhouse Microsoft SMS and is significantly easier to set up. However, Ghost does require some significant energy from the IT team to realize the product's benefits. It's my selection for Editor's Choice, although it has more features than what a small business would typically want or need.

Symantec Ghost Solution Suite

PROS: Automated deployment features; multicasting and throughput limitation features, some systems management features, reasonable price
CONS: Backup and restore processes take over machine, idling users; extra features mean added complexity for small IT staffs
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $39.20 per seat with volume discounts
RECOMMENDATION: The Editor's Choice product and not just for imaging anymore, Ghost Solution Suite is a management and deployment tool that approaches the capabilities of SMS for less than half the price.
CONTACT: Symantec • 800-441-7234 • http:// www.symantec.com

Acronis True Image Workstation with Acronis Universal Restore
Acronis True Image Workstation is designed primarily for easy backup and recovery. Images can be differentially backed up, and differential backups can be scheduled and triggered remotely. I tested True Image 9.1.

True Image's interface (which Figure 2 shows) is intuitive, well explained, and easy to use. Just minutes after I installed each element of True Image (the local application, the workstation tools, and the administrative-tools), I was able to create a new backup and schedule a backup task. True Image would be a good tool to use to implement an ongoing service level agreement (SLA)-based backup and recovery strategy.

One major advantage of True Image is that you can create backups from within the OS while other applications run. By using VSS, True Image can create a complete disk image backup while applications are running and files are open. As a result, scheduling backups isn't as difficult. Of course, restoring a disk does require booting to a preinstallation environment.

In my test, creating a 4GB image over a network connection took 8 minutes. Restoring the same image to the same workstation took 12 minutes. This is much faster performance than Ghost, on an individual machine. However, Ghost's multicast feature would give Ghost the performance edge in a larger deployment.

Although not specifically targeted toward deployment, True Image includes some features and add-ons that make it useable for small deployments or desktop refreshes. When you design an image restore, you can define pre- and post-installation tasks for True Image to perform, such as initiating Microsoft Windows User State Migration Toolkit (USMT) and Sysprep. With these scripted tasks and Acronis Universal Restore (described below), an administrator could refresh a desktop or migrate a client with True Image.

Because True Image simply copies an image of a partition or drive, it's not on its own suited to large-scale deployments. However, the add-on product Acronis Universal Restore allows driver injection and preserves the current SID of the target computer. Universal Restore can restore an image to a replacement computer even if the replacement doesn't have the same hardware as the failed machine.

True Image includes a feature called Secure Zone, which lets you create a recovery partition on a workstation and automatically schedule backups to that location. Users can recover individual files or restore an entire drive from this partition without the assistance of IT personnel and without access to the network. Of course, this is only a partial recovery solution—it wouldn't be of help in instances where the entire disk is damaged or inaccessible.

True Image does have an administrative remote control that you can use to connect to a remote workstation and perform all the tasks that you can perform locally. Using this management tool, you can launch group jobs or manage individual clients running the True Image agent. However, this isn't a tool that a large organization could rely upon—the remote console isn't capable of controlling groups.

Acronis True Image is easy to use and can be quickly deployed. Its backup features would definitely come in handy in a small organization in which its relatively high price isn't a problem. However, it's not an ideal image deployment tool for a 10,000workstation enterprise. Look to this tool for data protection and disaster recovery or, with the addition of Universal Restore, workstation imaging in a small network. Particularly advantageous is the use of VSS to allow for backups while the computer is in use.

Acronis True Image Workstation with Acronis Universal Restore

PROS: Can create image without booting to preinstallation environment; fast backup and restore
CONS: Some scripting plus Microsoft's USMT and Sysprep are required for automated deployment; high price
RATING: 3 out of 5
PRICE: True Image: $79.99 per seat with volume discounts; Universal Restore: $29.99 per seat with volume discounts
RECOMMENDATION: This product is easy to deploy and use and is a great desktop backup and recovery solution for SMBs that can afford it. True Image has rudimentary but effective tools for performing small-scale deployments but isn't an enterprise-level deployment solution.
CONTACT: Acronis • 877-669-9749 • http://www.acronis.com

Paragon Drive Backup Professional Edition
Paragon Drive Backup Professional Edition is intended for just that: creating an image for backing up and restoring partitions. A lot of the features of Drive Backup 8.0, the version I tested, compare with those of Acronis True Image. Like True Image, Drive Backup can back up without a reboot and while other applications are running. It can schedule backups—including differential backupsand place them on a hidden partition. It can clone an image to another identical or nearly identical drive and change the SID. It allows the user to browse an image and restore individual files from an image.

Drive Backup lacks the extra features that make Symantec Ghost and True Image worthwhile applications for IT departments. It has no remote management tools and no option for scripting USMT or Sysprep.

The user interface (which Figure 3 shows) is a simple embedded browser but still managed to be somewhat confusing. After I completed the Create an Image wizard, nothing happened. I repeated the wizard, thinking that I had missed something. Still nothing. Finally, I noticed the View Changes, Apply, and Discard buttons on the toolbar. I had to click Apply before the task would run. Given that the only functions are to create a backup, restore a backup, and copy a disk on the local workstation, it seems unnecessary and counter-productive to schedule a series of jobs and perform them. The jobs would conflict with each other.

A scheduled backup job to create a 4GB image over a network connection took well over an hour. Restoring the same image to the same workstation also took over an hour.

Drive Backup offers no features that would favor it over Acronis True Image except for price. Symantec Ghost's many features outweigh Drive Backup's ability to back up without a reboot and while other applications are running.

Paragon Drive Backup Professional Edition

PROS: Can create image without booting to preinstallation environment
CONS: No remote management tools and no option for scripting USMT or Sysprep; confusing UI; slow backup and restore
RATING: 1 out of 5
PRICE: $49.95 per seat with volume discounts
RECOMMENDATION: I can recommend this product for only very small businesses that can't handle the feature set of Symantec Ghost or the price of Acronis True Image.
CONTACT: Paragon Software • 800-240-8993 • http://www.paragon-software.com

Vista and Microsoft
The deployment scenario that's on everyone's mind these days is deployment of the new Windows Vista desktop. Microsoft is releasing Windows Deployment Services (WDS), the latest version of Remote Installation Services (RIS). WDS uses the new Microsoft Windows Imaging Format (WIM), which is editable and can handle multiple images within one file. The WIM file format isn't useable for backups, but it will change the way that deployment is managed.

Symantec Ghost Solution Suite 2.0 wasn't yet available as of this writing, but it's supposed to be Vista compatible. Acronis True Image 10.0 Home supports Vista, but the True Image Workstation 9.1 version that I tested wasn't Vista aware. True Image's and Paragon Drive Backup's backup and restore features will function on a Vista desktop.

In addition to SMS, Microsoft has another product which, along with Vista, should be mentioned in the deployment space. Business Desktop Deployment (BDD) 2007 is currently in beta 2 testing. The previous versions of BDD, 2.0 and 2.5, were a collection of guidance and best practice documents. BDD 2007 is more of an "on the ground" tool that includes applications and wizards that package and deploy WIM files and applications, especially Microsoft Office 2007. BDD isn't a tool for backup, but SMBs looking to deploy Vista should certainly evaluate this tool for their Vista deployment—particularly at the low price of free.

The Bottom Line
Larger organizations can justify the cost of SMS and similar enterprise-class management servers, but small IT departments have generally been priced out of any kind of deployment tool beyond a technician with a custom image on a DVD. Symantec Ghost Solution Suite is an affordable product that offers a set of features similar to SMS as well as the ability to launch and manage desktop backup routines.

For organizations not interested in Ghost's feature set that need only to deploy the occasional new workstation and keep some critical laptops backed up, Acronis True Image Workstation is a sharp program. It's targeted right at an SMB's desktop backup and deployment needs. Although more expensive than Ghost, the ease of setup and deployment would be a boon to understaffed, overworked SMB IT staffs. It does exactly what it should with little effort or risk. It's appealing for its incredibly easy deployment path as well as its use of VSS to create images of a disk while the disk's OS is in use.

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