Clone, clone, clone your disks

Imaging software can help you roll out new systems faster, but new technology from IBM may be a quantum leap for disk imaging.

COMMENTARY--What do you do when you roll out new client PCs? A sensible approach is to purchase identical client hardware (leaving aside the question of desktop or laptop) and copy down to each unit a reference image that contains all the common software your standard users need.

If you're just getting started with drive imaging and deployment, Microsoft has a good document about deploying Windows 2000 Professional and Office 2000 that you can use as a starting point.

There are plenty of good packages for creating drive images, including Symantec Norton Ghost, Novell ZENworks for Desktops, PowerQuest DeployCenter, Altiris Rapideploy, and Phoenix Technologies' Imagecast.

Great way to handle deployments, right? In theory it is, until you consider the fine print. The catch is that requirement for "identical client hardware." If you're using a component that requires different drivers from the ones on your image, you need to make a whole new image, which kind of goes against the whole concept.

Unfortunately, even if you buy all your PCs from the same vendor, there's no guarantee that you'll get truly identical configurations. Computer vendors often change components in each PC if they have to use up inventory or they got a better deal from another supplier, and to them, one 40GB hard drive is pretty much like another. Even if you do get perfectly uniform PCs in the batch you order today, don't count on the vendor being able to match your specs when you order a few more next month.

That's why I'm intrigued by a new service offered by IBM. IBM ImageUltra Services uses what it calls Hardware Independent Imaging Technology (HIIT) to separate the hardware drivers from the software it distributes. It can further separate the operating system from the applications, for three-phase distributions, but that gives you more options.

HIIT depends on a hidden service partition that lives on all IBM desktop and laptop PCs. ImageUltra uses the service partition something like the way developers use an application programming interface. The service partition contains all the appropriate drivers and modules for the hardware, and holds them in such a way that ImageUltra can access them.

Right now ImageUltra is only a service, but in the fall the company plans to release a software development kit to allow companies to access the hidden service partition on IBM hardware, according to Rich Cheston, the company's director of migration.

The technology is so useful that it gives IBM a competitive advantage in high-volume hardware sales to organizations that roll out a lot of clones. "We've been approached by a lot of people to license it," Cheston said, but he declined to say when that might happen.

I look forward to the day when the technology is widely licensed and incorporated into standard disk imaging tools. It would certainly make life a lot easier for a lot of network administrators.

(By the way, I'm interested in hearing what's on your list of must-deploy software. Let's stipulate the operating system, an office suite, and any vertical or home-grown applications you use. What else makes it into your reference image? E-mail me your answer.)

Got any imaging tips and tricks you can share? TalkBack below!

Lee Schlesinger is the senior technology editor for ZDNet Tech Update.

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