A Picturesque Network

Deploying new software or upgrading existing software across all the clients on anetwork can make the most dedicated network managers contemplate changing careers. As moreclients appear on the network and more software is installed at each machine, keepingevery machine up to date sometimes seems an impossible task. What's worse, the cost ofperforming these upgrades and installs consumes still more of the IT budget.

One way to help keep these costs in line is automated software installation. Somesoftware, such as Windows 98, comes with built-in features to allow you to automate andcustomize the installation process. Most do not. For those packages, PictureTaker Expressby LANovation (Minneapolis, Minn.) is a good solution.

SMILE FOR THE CAMERA

PictureTaker automates the software installation process by creating a file containingall the installation details for a particular software package. This allows you todetermine how the software will be installed. The way you install it on the first machineis the way it's installed on all subsequent machines. The directory you install it in, thefeatures you select and every other installation detail are fixed during the initialinstallation. This method prevents individual users from selecting how the software isinstalled and lets the Help Desk be assured that each machine is identical. This seemslike a relatively simple idea, but as always, execution is the tricky part.

PictureTaker works by taking snapshots (hence the name) of a system before and aftersoftware is installed. Those snapshots are compared and any differences are placed in afile that is used to install the software on another machine. It looks for any files thathave been added, changed or deleted and it tracks changes in the Windows registry and inother configuration files such as system.ini, win.ini, autoexec.bat and config.sys.

These changes are compiled into a self-installing executable file that's run on theother machines. The self-installing file contains not only a record of the changes, butthe actual files required to run the new software. The original distribution media(CD-ROM, diskette, etc.) is not needed to install the software. In fact, theself-installing file can be invoked across the network or from a url in a Web page or ane-mail message. When it's executed, the appropriate changes are made and the software iscopied to the appropriate directories.

I tried PictureTaker Express 2.0 with several software packages. The most complex wasMicrosoft Office 97. I invoked PictureTaker and by default, was taken into the process tocreate a self-installing file. It took less than 20 seconds to make the initial snapshotof my Windows 98 configuration on a 266 MHz Pentium II with 128MB of RAM.

CUSTOM SHUTTERBUG

After taking the snapshot, PictureTaker paused to allow me to make my changes. Iinstalled Office with various custom installation options. Once Office was installed, Ireturned to PictureTaker and was given an opportunity to select "AdvancedOptions." Here you can choose to create an Uninstall entry in the Add/Remove Programsportion of the Control Panel. You can also configure the self-installing file to includefile deletions or to automatically replace newer files on the target system. Of course,PictureTaker's defaults, which are Include deletions and Do not automatically replacefiles, are the safest bet.

Once any options are adjusted, PictureTaker creates the self-installing file. In thecase of Office 97, the file was 51MB. The self-installing file must be compressed, becausemy preferred installation of Office 97 usually takes about 90MB. As a final step, I wasoffered the opportunity to edit the self-installing file manually.

A CURIOUS FEATURE

Having the ability to edit this file is a useful feature. It lets you see every changethe software installation has made to your system. For instance, Office setup addsregistry entries for Netscape Navigator browser to use the various Office programs as fileviewers. One other interesting thing is that it registers 39 different file types. Allthose templates, macros and file interchange formats add up quickly. Aside from appealingto your curiosity, the editing feature allows you to change how you set things up.

If after installing, you want the software to reside in another directory, you don'tneed to install again and create a new self-installing file. Just edit the name of the newdirectory. Nearly every aspect of the installation can be changed at this point. You canperform disk free space checks, create installation prompts, control reboots (ifnecessary) and create variables and prompts to be used during installation.

Using the self-installing files on other machines worked as advertised. The softwareinstalled smoothly and worked correctly. Uninstall entries were created as promised andwhen invoked, removed the software cleanly and completely.

PictureTaker Express is a very good product. It works well, is easy to use and providesa tremendous amount of control. While advanced product suites such as Microsoft's SystemsManagement Server, Norton Administrative Suite by Symantec and Intel's LANDesk offersoftware installation features, they are expensive.

PictureTaker Express 2.0 works with Windows 9x and Intel-based Windows NT 4.0. It'slicensed to one person for use on up to five computers. No licenses or special software isrequired to deploy the self-installing files. Pricing ranges from $865 to $1,119 dependingon distribution media and support options. An evaluation copy is available from LANovationat www.lanovation.com.