Tech & Work

Decision Support: Using Altiris to ease the burden managing desktop configurations

Provides a case study of how TechRepublic used Altiris eXpress Deployment Server software to recover from laptop theft


Deploying applications to client machines has traditionally been a labor-intensive process for administrators. Fortunately, several software solutions are now available to make the task a lot easier. Among those solutions are product suites and modules from Altiris, including the eXpress line. The Altiris eXpress Deployment Server offers many invaluable features that facilitate the process of administering enterprise workstations.

Not only does the product allow you to rapidly push software across the network, but it can also serve as a disaster recovery tool in some cases. TechRepublic's IT department, for example, found Deployment Server to be indispensable when it was recovering from a break-in and the theft of multiple company laptops, as we will see.

Features summary
The primary function of Altiris eXpress Deployment Server is to automate the process of deploying applications and updates on the network. The deployment package includes:
  • Rapid deploy for pushing out applications, updates, and files to workstations.
  • Rapid install for creating rapid installation programs (RIPs).
  • Network boot disk creation.
  • Disk imaging.
  • Remote control.

You can use Deployment Server to expedite the process of setting up PCs on the network, migrating to a new OS, installing applications, copying needed files to each machine on the network, and even troubleshooting software problems via the remote control feature. The functionality of Deployment Server makes it a useful tool for both administrators and help desk analysts.

The Deployment Server program essentially comes in two parts, a server piece, where deployment and updates are managed, and a client piece that's installed on each machine on the network to allow them to receive programs and updates, as well as enabling remote control. And, yes, the client software is automatically deployed to the desktops from the Deployment Server itself.

How one organization uses Altiris
Ted, an IS technician for TechRepublic/CNET Networks, primarily uses the different deployment features present in the Altiris suite to push software and files to the network. He says Deployment Server has made his job a lot easier because he can do in a matter of minutes what would take hours to do without the automation of many of the tasks.

He uses Deployment Server to create disk images to deploy to multiple PCs. In cases where the same OS and primary applications are used across the enterprise, this can greatly shorten the time necessary to get users up and running. It also ensures consistency in the configurations across the network.

“You want to limit the number of standard configurations as much as possible to make the task of managing workstations that much easier,” he said.

Ted thinks that Deployment Server is ideally suited to places like call centers, where all machines are configured the same way.

“Upgrades could easily be pushed overnight when no one was using the machines.”

When all machines are essentially identical in terms of configuration, the deployment won't adversely affect individuals by making unwanted changes.

The deployment suite includes its own imaging program, which Ted said he likes better than the popular Norton Ghost.

You can also use Deployment Server to create RIPs to facilitate the implementation of operating systems and applications across the network. The advantage of creating RIPs is that they require no user intervention. This minimizes the chances of mistakes being made, especially in organizations with less technically savvy users. Using RIPs also ensures that the configuration of applications is consistent across the network. It naturally doesn’t preclude users from making changes after the apps are installed, but the apps will at least be initially installed the same way on all machines.

However, Ted warned that you should proceed with caution with RIPs. When creating them, you need to be careful about what you include in the executable file that the process creates.

For example, he said, “If network access is required—if you have to access a network share for files needed for the install—any information necessary for accessing that share, such as user information, becomes a part of the .exe.”

You should also thoroughly test the RIP before deploying it.

“Test them on both clean and dirty machines—machines that have actually been used,” he said. This ensures that the RIP will function properly when it’s actually deployed to users.

The deployment package can also be used to do software inventory, storing data in a SQL database. Altiris sells an optional module for this purpose, but Ted says if you know anything about SQL, you could easily set it up yourself and create your own queries to do the job.

The functionality Ted uses the most is deploying files and updates. With the client piece running in the background, updates can be installed while users are working without interfering with their daily tasks. Ted gave the example of updating a specific XML file used on most machines on the network. Using Deployment Server, he specified the location of the updated file and then selected the PCs it needed to be copied to. Deployment Server pushed the new file to the network without any intervention required on the part of the user. This approach ensures that everyone who needs the update gets it, and it cuts down on the amount of communication necessary to implement minor updates.

Recovering from a disaster
Where Deployment Server really shined in Ted’s organization was during their recovery from a burglary in which the company had 28 laptops stolen. The theft meant that many employees who reported to work one Monday morning had no computers to work on.

Luckily, the IT department had enough older laptops in storage to supply replacements. The IT staff used Deployment Server to get everybody up and running again in an amazingly short amount of time: five hours.

The process involved configuring a single laptop with the OS and applications that everyone would use. Ted said they basically wanted to set up a baseline with the essentials. At the very least, that meant getting productivity tools such as MS Office and Outlook installed and setting up the machines for Internet access.

Once the baseline laptop was configured, Ted used Deployment Server's network boot disk feature to multicast the master image to the remaining laptops. The master PC was booted via floppy with network access, and then each of the other machines was also booted from floppy with the client portion of the image deployment. When all of the client machines were booted and connected to the network, the master image was pushed to each of them.

Most of the time required to get users up and running with the bare essentials involved physically installing all of the hardware in the offices. The part handled through Deployment Server—imaging disks and deploying software—took only a matter of minutes. Without Deployment Server, Ted said the process would’ve taken much longer. With it, they were able to get all of their users up and running again by 3:00 P.M. After everyone had a working system, Ted once again used Deployment Server to deploy missing applications that weren’t core essentials—programs such as WinZip and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Final word
Ted’s experience with Altiris eXpress Deployment Server shows that it’s a powerful tool that can improve efficiency and ease much of the burden associated with deploying software and updates and managing desktop configurations. For a look at what Deployment Server offers, you can download trial versions of the software from the company Web site.

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