Caveat Cloner! Best Practices for PC Management with Cloning Software

Jim Szopinski
If your hair is falling out, or at least turning prematurely grey, you more than likely manage your organization's PCs. It's a burden that's grown heavier in recent years and today probably includes deploying new PCs, migrating users from one machine to another, restoring unstable platforms, maintaining applications and operating systems, and ensuring that users can be quickly back in the saddle after even the most unexpected discontinuity in operations. Heterogeneity - a mix of personal computing devices - is the heart of the problem, and diminishing PC life spans have made it worse. Not so long ago, PCs lasted a good three or four years. Nowadays, 12 to 18 months is more realistic. Such rapid turnover makes standardization on a single PC model economically impracticable for most organizations. The result is the need to support a medley of models and all their disparities of operating system, processor, memory, port availability, drivers, network interfaces, and more. Add to this multiple form factors - desktop, notebook, tablet, and handheld - plus a growing reliance on tele�commuters and transient contractors and the management responsibility increases still further.

Security threats posed by worms, viruses, malicious code, and so-called hackers - exact another toll on PC management. Patches - the traditional fix to software vulnerabilities - can't remediate many types of virus and spyware. And efforts to manually remove such vulnerabilities are often as ineffectual as they are uneconomic. The only reliable solution may be to reformat the user's PC, performing a complete reinstallation of the operating system, drivers and application software. And as security incursions continue to escalate, the need for ever more frequent reformatting increases accordingly.

Recent assaults, meanwhile, on the London and Madrid subway systems and the destruction of New York's World Trade Center are stark reminders of the threat to an organization's physical security. Likewise for the ravages of hurricanes, floods, quakes and tsunamis, at once unpredictable and inevitable. Whether victimized by Mother Nature or her human counterpart, organizations clearly need data protection and continuity of operations plans (COOPs) to ensure their survival.

Meanwhile, two additional developments complicate PC management still further: Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and new industry regulations. SLAs between IT departments and users are now common practice in establishing standards of service such as network latency and platform stability. And industry regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States and our own European Privacy Directives dictate IT-related controls for financial reporting. Sarbanes-Oxley, for example, requires hardware and software inventory records, document�ation of system changes, and audit trails for each system that contributes financial information. Compliance to such regulations is notably more difficult in a heterogeneous environment.

PC Management, BC

In the era BC - that is, Before Cloning - the management of PCs was one of the most labor-intensive responsibilities in most organizations' already overworked IT departments. Deployment of each new PC, for example, demanded a lengthy sequence of steps: erasing and reformatting the hard drive; installing the operating system; installing applications; updating the operating system and applications with the latest patches; locating and installing drivers for auxiliary devices such as printers, Web cameras, VoIP-enabled telephones, and portable digital assistants; creating user profiles; customizing the desktop; and configuring network settings.

End to end, these tasks could easily consume three or more hours of an IT manager's day per machine. Meanwhile, efforts to reformat a PC to its original state, refresh a PC following a platform failure, or migrate a user from one machine to another could be even more laborious, often entailing additional steps such as backing up user data and providing a temporary platform in the interim.

With increasing use of cloning solutions, the BC era is rapidly receding into a not-so-fondly remembered past - a past that squandered the time and talents of IT professionals who might otherwise have been more productively employ�ed. Cloning - or Imaging, as it is also known - accelerates and at least partially automates the formatting, reformatting, and refreshing of PCs via a two-step process illustrated in Figure 1:

First, convert the contents of a hard drive (including the operating system, user preferences, software applications, data, and network config�uration settings) into a single file, the so-called Image. Then port this Image, usually via a removable disk or a network connection, to a second PC to create an identical version or clone of the first.

Cloning Solutions

Ghost, the first cloning product, was introduced in 1996 by Binary Research Ltd, an independent New Zealand-based software developer. Following its acquisition by U.S. software giant Symantec Corporation in 1998, Ghost has seen widespread adoption in the United States, where it dominates. The U.S. market, however, is active with competition from Altiris, Novell, Acronis and IBM, among others. European users, meanwhile, are beginning to adopt cloning solutions in greater numbers as Symantec and rival vendors extend their market�ing to this region.

Indeed, competition among cloning products has driven considerable innovation in the decade since the release of Ghost. That first product was exclusively a disk Imaging tool. Today's products, in contrast, are full solution suites including utilities for centralized and remote provisioning, user migration, data backup, asset management and operational continuity. It's a cradle-to-grave concept for managing PCs from initial deployment to maintenance to recovery to disposal.

IT departments use cloning solutions because they deliver significant productivity gains, relieving staff of hundreds or even thousands of hours cumulatively each year in managing PCs in mid-to-large organizations. This significantly lowers the total cost of PC ownership. Meanwhile, additional utilities that are packaged with cloning solutions deliver other advantages that go beyond the bottom line. One such is support of compliance with industry regulations, a key business concern nowadays. Another is management of software updates to help combat platform and application security risks.

In sum, packaged solutions like Symantec's Ghost offer an irrefutable value proposition. Indeed, after expending untold hours on PC management, you'll be forgiven for tearing open the box and rushing headlong to install the software within. But take heed: IT departments that don't address associated business and technology issues will not realize the full value of their investment in cloning solutions. Worse, they could impede the operations of the users whom they endeavor to serve.

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Aug 2, 2011 11:08 PM piedakatelin piedakatelin  says:
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