A few weeks ago I was at Microsoft TechED 2009 in LA, and I was wondering around the vendor expo area. I stumbled upon a small company which, among other things, specializes in Windows OS deployment tools. OS deployment tools are nothing new; Microsoft has Windows Deployment Services (WDS). Symantec has Ghost and now owns Altiris. WDS, for instance, is great for re-imaging a machine when it’s connected to the LAN. WDS can inject drivers from a repository at image time, so you can keep one master image yet deploy to a variety of hardware.
However, WDS’s driver injecting feature is limited to LAN based deployments not to standalone (offline) DVD based imaging. The project I support has several dozen client workstation models and probably a dozen server models. To make matters worse, for a variety of reasons, we use DVD based imaging and not LAN based imaging. So we ended up with literally dozens of machine specific DVDs which could take weeks or months to build and test. Very unpleasant to say the least. Not to mention our images were always out of date and restoring machines with known security vulnerabilities is not optimal.
A small company called Prowess has a product called SmartDeploy Enterprise which is an amazing piece of software that allowed us to consolidate all of our client AND server images into a single DVD. Their web site has good information on how the solution works, so I won’t repeat all of the details.
At a 10,000 foot view the concept is very simple: You build up a hardware agnostic VM, convert it to a WIM (using their tools), inject the Platform Packs (driver bundles), and burn to DVD/CD/USB stick. Insert the DVD/CD/USB stick into your client or server, boot from it, run a quick wizard, and in just a few minutes the OS will restore and have all the needed drivers. Image restores can take as little as five minutes, even middle of the road computers.
The secret sauce are the Platform Packs, which Prowess is building and making available on their web site. You can of course build your own, so you are not limited by the models they choose to support. The Platform Packs are bundles of all the drivers which a particular model and OS need. One Platform pack for a HP 8510 laptop running Windows XP, and other for a Dell E6400 running Vista x64, etc. The packs have built-in detection logic so upon restore it looks up the manufacturer and model information burned into the system BIOS and picks the right driver package. It is important to note these Platform packs are NOT stored in the OS WIM. They are loaded at demand during the restore process from the DVD.
Other great features are single instance storage for both WIMs and drivers. What does this mean? If you have 20 PCs which all need the same driver, SmartDeploy only stores one copy on the DVD, not 20. In addition, if you have two or more WIMs on the disc it will crack open the WIM and only store one copy of each file, no matter how many WIMs it is in. If you have custom OS images for legal and IT, for example, only the differences in the WIMs are stored saving vast quantities of space.
Using this technology we will be able to consolidate 60+ image DVDs into a single DVD disc which has our Windows XP, and Server 2003 x86 and x64 images. SmartDeploy also supports USB memory sticks, CD media, and spanned media.
The most significant gain in efficiencies will be future updates to the image. Instead of having to update 60+ images, do extensive testing, and take weeks or months of time we can update the VM and build a new DVD disc with existing Platform packs in literally less than an hour. Building monthly or quarterly images with all the latest security patches has now become a reality and would take less time than writing this blog.
Other uses for these image discs could be emergency recovery DVDs for people on the road with laptops. If their machine crashes or becomes unusable a single DVD could get them back and running in less than 10 minutes. Anyone that needs to perform offline imaging should seriously look at this product.
SmartDeploy enterprise is still in beta, but should be released in late June 2009. They already support Windows 7 experimentally, and you can download a beta from their website. There is no scripting involved, it is all GUI driven, and the company is very responsive to feature requests and enhancements. A number of feature requests and bug fixes from our project have already been incorporated into the product before it has even RTM’d.
If you are a Dell customer, they are now starting to build driver CAB files for their platforms. This will greatly simplify the building of Platform packs. I hope HP follows suit, as extracting the HP drivers into their component INF files can be challenging. The Dell driver CAB files also work with Microsoft OS deployment tools such as MDT 2008, MDT 2010, ConfigMgr, WDS R2.