The Right Image: Weston Clones Around to Get Back to Ground Zero

Geoff Bentley wanted a disk imaging application tht would reduce the time required for upgrades, rollouts and restores. The right product would also allow him and his staff to create backup images of CDs of systems that simply could not afford to be down for hours, much less days. The search begins for the right disk imaging technology.

The problem: According to research from GartnerGroup and Forrester Research, MIS departments spend 50 percent of their time installing software and performing upgrades, accounting for a significant portion of the total cost of PC/server ownership. Corporations spend approximately $9,000 to $12,000 per user per year on maintenance, configuration and installation of new PCs.

With 2,000 employees as internal customers and approximately 1,200 workstations to tend, Craig Stoll, Project Manager for Development and Strategic Planning, Geoff Bentley, LAN Manager in the Weston IS Department, and IS staff of 35 people must manage their time and corporate computing resources well. To that end, Stoll makes sure that Weston uses the best products to meet its computing needs. Bentley, in turn, ensures that desktops and servers are restored quickly and that software rollouts are performed as efficiently and swiftly as possible.

"We perform intense configuration testing of new products and beta products we’re evaluating for in-house use," says Stoll. "Beta products go through many revisions. With each new version we install to test, we must delete everything as though it had never been there before. We need to be able to bring everything back to that Ground Zero every time. To perform accurate testing, you must have a clean, uncompromised system that provides a baseline for evaluation. That’s absolutely necessary when you’re testing for compatibility."

Returning workstations and servers to that Ground Zero was taking significant chunks of time – four to eight hours per machine depending on the complexity of the configuration. Manually setting up a PC usually requires the installation of an operating system (Win95, Win98, NT etc.), desktop applications (spreadsheet, word processing, mail, browser, etc.), and then modifying configuration settings. For a company with 500 PCs, this process would take a minimum of 125 man days or a single individual more than six months to complete. This can be a tremendous strain on resources, especially if IS staff are also maintaining existing systems at the same time. What Stoll needed was a disk imaging application that could provide a consistent environment with every reinstall on desktops and servers in a more productive manner.

Bentley wanted a disk imaging application that would reduce the time required for upgrades, rollouts, and restores. The right product would also allow him and his staff to create backup image CDs of systems that simply could not afford to be down for hours, much less days. Bentley also believed that installing desktops with one image would make desktop management easier by providing a standard desktop.

"It could take from four hours to two work days to rebuild a server," relates Bentley. "Calculating that in IT staff time just isn’t accurate. The cost of a downed server is the time that employees lose."

With the common goal of improving internal customer service, Stoll and Bentley began their search for the right disk imaging technology.

The Solution

The search culminated in the selection of Symantec’s Ghost disk imaging software. Norton Ghost was the first cloning solution available on the market and since its release has been used in many ways to increase productivity and eliminate routine PC management tasks. Ghost is useful tool for PC rollout, hardware migration, and disaster recovery.

Designed to reduce the time spent reconfiguring, cloning or restoring PCs, Ghost works by creating an exact image of a PCs hard drive, effectively taking a snapshot of all of the files that make up the operating system, applications and configuration settings. The image can then be copied to many PCs simultaneously, reducing the time required for a large rollout and upgrade jobs by 90 percent or more.

Ghost is a fast and easy way to copy drives (including the Windows Registry and INI configuration files), restore a drive to its exact condition before problems developed, and clone an entire PC. A variety of utilities are included: GhostWalker, which resolves the problem of duplicate SIDs on cloned systems, Ghost Explorer, which provides a full backup and restore facility, GDISK, which extends cleaning and repartitioning capabilities to large disks, and more. Norton Ghost Enterprise users have additional tools available, including Norton Ghost Console and Norton Ghost Client, which enable remote management and post-cloning configuration.

With Ghost, a single master workstation is configured and tested to make sure that all settings are correct and applications are functioning. The master image is then multicast across the network to each of the new workstations and confirmation is received that the imaging process is completed correctly. If configuring the master takes a day and then another day is added for multicasting and confirmation, the entire process only takes two days as opposed to six months. Now, every time Stoll needs to return a PC to Ground Zero to test a new beta version of a product, it doesn’t take a day to do so.

"It only takes about 40 minutes to use the Ghost image we created to reinstall a clean, baseline test environment – every time," says Stoll.

Stoll uses Ghost almost every day for beta testing. The end result: Stoll and his testing group can conduct accurate configuration tests and feel confident about the products they recommend for corporate purchases.

"Ghost is priceless in the IT department," says Bentley. "It takes so little time to create an image for a recovery. We figure it takes one recovery to pay the ROI on three Ghost licenses. That’s a 1:3 ratio on return on investment. Instead of taking up to two days to rebuild a server, it only takes us 30 to 40 minutes to do so with a Ghost image."

"We make a Ghost image of an NT Server for Service Pack and HotFix upgrades," says Bentley. "Reversing an upgrade or rebuilding a server is very hard to do without a Ghost image. Without a Ghost image, you have to baby-sit the installation and spend time finding the right software and hardware drivers and all the correct patches." Rollouts are also significantly faster and more efficient with Ghost.

"Our contractors use Ghost for our IT rollouts. It’s easier to manage and administer desktops when all employees have a standard desktop. It makes helpdesk calls easier to resolve as well," points out Bentley.

Weston tries to buy PCs in batches for distribution. A single Ghost image is created for one "batch" computer. The image is then used to standardize the other computers in the batch before being rolled out across the company. A Ghost image ensures there will be no differences between workstation configurations due to human error or different installers.

IS staff have a common consistent baseline configuration that speeds analysis of workstation problems; this greatly reduces the software configuration time that would otherwise be needed for each workstation. Ghost is an effective tool for addressing these challenges, leveraging the proven cost-effective process of cloning a large number of PCs within a networked enterprise environment.

Using Ghost enables Weston to deploy or repair images to workstations and servers very consistently and in much less time than it would take using traditional methods, which saves them a significant amount of time, money, and worry. Having a Ghost image on a backup CD can also provide insurance in the event an expensive system goes down. This was especially useful in the recent case of a specialized system for managing and processing electronic photographs. The system needed to be operational each and every day for approximately one month. Downtime per day was estimated at about $20,000/day.

Depending on the needs, image files can be easily saved to local or network drives, as well as removable storage devices, such as JAZ drives, ZIP Drives, CD-ROM or other removable media. Ghost permits a disk or partition image to be split across multiple volumes, prompting the user to insert another disk (or other media), or permitting the selection of an alternate location. Ghost images can also be saved to, and loaded from, SCSI tape systems, providing an ideal means for implementing a robust disaster recovery solution.

Weston wanted to create a backup Ghost image because it was decided that this was the simplest, fastest way to restore the system in case it did fail. If the main drive did fail they would have been able to remove the bad drive and be running on the cloned drive almost immediately.

"The system didn’t fail," says Stoll. "But, it was a good feeling knowing that if we had to restore it, it wouldn’t be hard to do. The Ghost image was good insurance."

Ghost is helpful for deploying, managing, upgrading, repairing or administering PCs across a large environment. The tedious process of manually installing an OS and applications on multiple client workstations is greatly simplified when using Ghost.

With Windows NT systems like Weston, Ghost Walker, which overcomes what used to be one of the biggest hassles of imaging an NT machine: dealing with SIDs, is very useful. In the past, in order to generate a new SID, they had to manipulate the registry when they rebooted each new machine. But, that process was error-prone. Now, with Ghost Walker assigning new SIDs on the fly as images are pushed down, what used to be a nightmare is simple.

IS managers also create a model configuration Ghost on a typical desktop or laptop. The configuration includes operating system, applications (office apps, Web browser, etc.) and any relevant data files (standard document templates, company information, etc). This configuration is then cloned and the image saved to a central file server where it can be accessed for updating or configuring any PC that is connected to the network.

Additional uses of Ghost include: copying the entire contents of one hard drive to another, creating an image file of one drive and use this image to create clones of the original, copying the contents of one partition to another, creating an image of a drive partition that can be used as a template to create other partitions, reimaging a remote drive to quickly recover from a disaster and reimaging a remote drive, then reapplying the user’s configuration.