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Scripted installs? So yesterday

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Blog Comparing software products can be approached in many ways. Different organizations have different concerns. For some money is a major factor, for others support or the richness of an application’s feature set. Everyone wants the moon on a stick for $24.99, but in the end we will all eventually compromise.

When looking at any software purchases I have some very specific criteria in mind. The first and foremost is cost; I don’t have access to the monetary resources available to larger organizations. Ease of use is an important consideration; staff time has value, and it would be false economy to skimp on software if that application can deliver measurable time savings.

The final criterion by which I judge software is the learning curve. A piece of software is of no use to me if only one person in my organization knows how to use it. While that might seem like good job security for the administrator in the know, business continuity in case of the unthinkable needs to be assured.

My previous article examined five desktop deployment solutions. The two scripted install options were Windows Deployment Services (WDS) and the open source challenger WINNER (Windows Is Not Necessary for Everyone's RIS). When examining imaging applications, WDS is again on the list. It is facing off against both the payware Symantec Ghost and open sourced PING (Ping Is Not Ghost).

It is almost jumping to the end of the article to say this, but before I delve into the specifics, I need to point out that scripted installs really aren’t worth considering for NT6 (Vista/2008/7/2008 R2). These operating systems can be fully “genericised” by a sysprep and as such they can be made as close to truly hardware independent as is possible with Windows.

Scripted installs really are quite a bit more work than image-based installs, and given the advances in NT6, this leaves scripted installs as something only to seriously be considered by those of us who need to continue to maintain NT5 (Windows 2000/.XP/2003) systems for the foreseeable future. For these systems, scripted installs offer advantages over imaging. A clean install (with an appropriate array of available drivers for the installer to choose from) is simply cleaner. There are fewer chances for things to go wrong, and a single deployment installer can be used across multiple generations of hardware.

Scripted installs rely on a pre-execution environment (PXE) server, and client computers capable of booting from them. Most computers are PXE capable, though this may not be enabled by default in the system’s BIOS. If your computer is not PXE boot capable, there are bootable floppies, CDs and flash drive images that can make your computer capable of working with either WDS or WINNER. Once your PSE client has contacted the server, it will boot a small bootstrap program from the server which will in turn launch the Windows installer.

In the past, scripted installs were something I have shied away from; they have seemed overly complicated compared to imaging. Beyond just simplicity, I have feared trying to train others in the intricacies of this particular tool. When I finally sat down to give it one more try, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how far Windows scripted installs have evolved.

WINNER has a few distinct advantages over WDS. The most notable being the ease of adding drivers and applications into the deployment installer. Adding drivers to a WDS installer is not a pleasant experience. More interestingly, the DVD creation tool that WINNER uses to create its deployment installer comes pre-packed with quite a few drivers; I did not have to load any drivers for the test systems I used. WINNER also offers greater partitioning flexibility than WDS. This flexibility extends even so far as to allow you to install Windows onto a partition that contains a previous Windows install, though I strongly recommend against this.

By contrast, scripted installs in WDS are exactly the nightmare I remember them to be. I will go so far as to advise anyone looking to do scripted installs of NT5 operating systems not to even bother with the native Microsoft tools. There is a reason that WDS is as horrible as I remember; WDS only supports scripted installs in “mixed mode”. Mixed mode is essentially WDS running side by side with Remote Installation Services (RIS). What’s more, mixed mode isn’t even an option in Server 2008 or Server 2008 R2. This means that in the battle of WDS versus WINNER, the open source offering is the victor by default. It is not only easier to use, but if you are moving your server fleet past Server 2003, it is the only option available.

Microsoft obviously believes imaging is the future of desktop deployment. While scripted installers have their definite advantages for the NT5 family of Windows operating systems, the ability to “genericise” NT6 makes desktop deployment a lot easier. Images are the lazy way to do things; you build a “template” computer and you dupe it.

Your template computer should ideally be one that is reasonably representative of the kinds of computers you will be deploying your image to, and you install not only the operating system, but any additional applications you desire. From Office and Photoshop to 7Zip and VLC; get your system as close to “perfect” as possible, sysprep it, and make a copy.

This is usually the point where I say “it’s not as easy as all that”, but it really is. All three contenders to the desktop imaging fight can do a reasonable job of capturing an image of your “perfect” computer and then redeploying it upon command.

Having spent time getting to know these newer offerings, my old Ghost 9 CD is looking more than a little dated. Considering business needs, a desktop deployment application needs to be capable of more than simply imaging a system I have sitting on my bench. If the computer has to come all the way to IT to get looked at, then the entire project starts to be of questionable value.

I need the ability to order a new computer, ship it to a store in another province, have the staffs on location plug it in and have it “just work”. This means the ability to reliably deploy pre-defined images through PXE boot, sometimes to many computers at once.

Of our three contenders, both WDS and Ghost are easily up to the task. I ran each of these applications through every test I can imagine and the result is rather unsurprising. Symantec Ghost obliterated the competition. Even for a sysadmin working in a budget-constrained environment, Ghost really isn’t that expensive. It does everything its competition does and throws some killer features into the mix as well.

The ability to Ghost to a VMWare image, excellent Linux support, and the ability to image live systems won me over to Symantec’s side. Both WDS (Server 2008 R2 version only) and Ghost offer the ability to inject drivers into an NT6 image before deployment. This has the benefit of making your “generisied” NT6 images even more compatible than they were already.

Both WDS and Ghost have excellent multicast abilities offering the opportunity to deploy an image simultaneously to multiple computers. Ghost offers some excellent inventory and enterprise-wide configuration features, while WDS is designed to integrate smoothly with Group Policy. The real clincher though is Ghost’s ease of use. Ghost has been through generations of interface refinement, and quite frankly the polish on this application shows.

Though I started this project with three imaging contenders, the open source contestant didn’t make it past the first round. PING simply wasn’t up to competing with WDS or Ghost. While it has found a spot in my bag of tricks as an excellent hands-on imaging utility, it failed at multicast tests, was very buggy when dealing with NT6 and required far too much end-user interaction to truly be considered a fully automated deployment method.

When I brought this up with a colleague, I was duly informed that I had chosen the wrong representative of open source imaging, and should have instead tried either FOG or Clonezilla. This will be rectified. When I first stumbled across PING and WINNER’s website, I was at first convinced that it must be some sort of bizarre phising experiment. Several elements of the project looked to be abandoned, and it had an indescribable feel about it that set off my internet alarms just a little.

Were it not for reputable sources pointing out that this was indeed the genuine home of the PING project, I would have walked away from WINNER and been the worse for it. If you need an NT5 scripted install desktop deployment solution, WINNER is it.

After a brief courtship, I have decided that WDS and I just were not meant to be. Like its predecessor RIS, WDS is simply too difficult to use. Setting up a WDS server is quite a pain for someone who has never done it before, and trying to do anything exotic with it can be downright hazardous to one’s sanity.

I will take time in my next article to explore both FOG and Clonezilla, as well as review some of the many pitfalls and traps that await the novice imager. Until then, the crown still belongs to the reigning champion, and it is clear why even amidst all the available competition, image-based system deployment is still called “Ghosting”.

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