The Ghost of laptops past: Preparing old laptops for new users with Ghost

As an IT pro, you're probably responsible for preparing old laptops to move from one user to another. If you're haunted by the meticulous, wearying details of performing a fresh install each time, read how Ghost can do most of the work for you.

In most companies, change is a constant factor. Employees come and go; new computers get purchased, and old ones get moved around. One thing that probably won’t change, however, is the fact that it’s your responsibility to prepare old laptops to move from one user to another. The best way to perform this task is to clone your laptops from a pre-configured host machine with a program like Norton Ghost by Symantec. I’m going to show you how to clone a laptop.

Send in the clones
As you know from all the talk in the news about cloning sheep, clones are identical genetic copies of living beings. Genes are what make animals unique. They’re the software for the hardware of organs and tissue. Likewise, in the computer realm, a computer’s uniqueness is due to its software. Using such software tools as Ghost to capture the configurations of your laptops, you can quickly make copies (clones) of them. Cloning can save you from having to deploy new hardware or reconfigure old hardware to a baseline configuration.

You know that office productivity suites, such as Microsoft Office, place files in very unusual places. You can try to remove all of the temporary Internet files, Outlook files, or Word files. You can manually change DUN settings, computer name information, and everything else that goes along with erasing all traces of a former user. But you’ll probably miss something essential. (Once, I had a laptop that I used for a year before I found a personal mailbox for the president of the company still on it.)

Why bother sweating over these tiny details? Why bother formatting the disk and doing a fresh install every time? It’s just not practical to waste your time this way. So, do yourself a favor—if you haven’t already—and buy a copy of Norton’s Ghost, a program that allows you to clone hard drives.
Current Versions:
  • Norton Ghost 2000 Personal Edition
  • Norton Ghost 6.03 Standard Edition
  • Norton Ghost 6.03 Enterprise Edition
  • Norton Ghost for NetWare
For Product and Pricing Information, visit the Symantec Web site or download the white paper Disk cloning technology for the overburdened IT professional.
Laplink vs. networked ghosting
You can use Norton Ghost to clone one laptop directly from another with a laplink cable. A laplink cable is a null-modem cable that connects two computers at the serial ports or the parallel ports. By the way, what’s good for the laptop is good for the desktop or tower—the same principles apply. Ghosting benefits any shop, especially when you compare it to the time it takes to perform a custom install on each machine. Most of all, a direct host-to-clone solution benefits the smaller shop that doesn’t have spare network bandwidth or where low maintenance overhead makes cloning practical. For shops with lots of bandwidth and lots of computers to install, you’ll want to use the network version of Ghost, which is faster and which allows you to clone many computers simultaneously.

Use identical machines
Since Ghost creates a sector-by-sector copy of your hard drive, you’ll get the best results by cloning identical laptops. But you’ll have watch and make sure that the video cards, network cards, and sound cards are identical on both units. Even with seemingly identical models, manufacturers often use different components. If you have to install different drivers, differently sized hard drive partitions, and different software patches, you may do harm to your machines. For example, Compaq writes its own diagnostic partition to the hard drive. It wouldn’t make much sense to clone a Compaq install to a Dell, or vice versa.

For this reason, it’s always a good idea for IT shops to plan their hardware needs for the year and to purchase as many of the same brand of laptops (and other computers) as possible. With only three or four brands floating around the company, three or four host images will cover all basic installations.

For this demo, I used two Compaq Prosignia 140 laptops. Both had 4-GB hard drives, Compaq 10/100 network interface cards, Chips & Tech video cards, ESS 1869 sound cards, 333-MHz Pentium chips, and Compaq 56-K PCMCI modems.

Choose a default software configuration
You’ll need to decide on a default software configuration—the starting point for all new machines. Mine included:
  • Windows NT Workstation 4.0
  • Internet Explorer 5
  • Microsoft Office 2000
  • Norton AntiVirus
  • Diskeeper (a disk defragmenter that’s made by Executive Software)

Ghost can’t do all your work for you. After the default installation has completed, you’ll still need to configure the computer name, dial-up networking, LAN networking, and mailbox information (such as an Outlook profile for the user). You may have to perform some custom software installation, such as adding Business Plan Pro for a new marketing staff or adding Photoshop, Freehand, and Illustrator for someone in graphic design. But Ghost will make getting there easier. Isn’t it nice to know that you can’t be replaced that easily?

You’ll probably clone only Windows 98 installations. The initial steps are the same for both OSs, but using Windows NT Workstation 4 as an example lets me touch on some of the quirks of an NT install. Also, another step is required for this OS. After cloning, a program called Ghost Walker needs to run so that the Windows SID (a unique security identifier that each copy of Workstation must possess) will change to work on a Windows NT Network. Since a clone creates two machines that share an SID, Ghost Walker completes the installation by generating a new SID and satisfying this security requirement.

Set up the host machine
Your first task is to set up the machine that will be used to clone all of the others. Check the laptop manufacturer’s Web site—along with the hardware and software vendors’ sites—for the latest drivers and patches. You’ll want to have them on hand; it pays to have these drivers and patches stored on separate floppy disks and on a shared network drive for easy access.

Believe me, you’ll want those floppy disks for situations when you need to apply patches or drivers before the laptop is configured for the network. NT installs can become difficult during networking, so keep those disks handy. Between firmware and BIOS upgrades, patches, and drivers for network cards, graphics, and other systems, I needed fifteen floppy disks in all.

What you need
In addition to upgrades, patches, and drivers, you’ll need the following:
  • Ghost
  • Ghost Walker
  • Three DOS or Windows 98 bootable floppy disks (two disks to hold copies of Ghost and Ghost Walker and one for Fdisk)
  • Service packs and other updates that won’t fit on floppy disks
  • A serial port or parallel port data transfer cable (laplink cable)

Initially, you’ll use the DOS program Fdisk to wipe the hard drive on the host machine before installation. Although we’ll be installing Windows NT Workstation in this demo, your initial boot can use either a DOS disk or a Windows 98 startup disk. Both versions of DOS are compatible with Ghost.

Ghost and Ghost Walker are both DOS-based programs. To run them, you’ll need to boot your machine from the floppy drive. Therefore, you’ll need to prepare boot disks. The steps for this task appear below. You never want to run Ghost from within Windows 98 or Windows NT. Also note that parallel port transfers are faster than serial transfers.

Preparing the host machine
Any particular set of computer instructions is only one possibility. If you prefer to use a slightly different procedure than the one in this Daily Drill Down, go ahead. The following example is only a recommendation.

If the laptop you’re planning to use for a host is also a previously used machine, you’ll want to wipe it clean and make a fresh install. This machine will become your template for all the clones. Before running Fdisk, however, you’ll want to make sure that you back up any data that needs to be kept. Preparing a fresh install will destroy all the data on that machine.

Prepare your boot disks
You can create either DOS system disks or Windows 98 boot disks. To create a DOS system disk, go to a command prompt, put a floppy disk in the A: drive, and type
Format A: /s

/s copies the hidden DOS system files IO.SYS and MSDOS.SYS, along with COMMAND.COM, to the floppy. When the formatting finishes, you’ll need to copy Fdisk.exe and (and any other DOS files that you think you’ll need) to the system disk manually.

To create a Windows 98 boot disk (on a machine running Windows 98):
  1. Go to Start | Settings | Control Panel | Add/Remove Programs
  2. Choose the Startup Disk tab
  3. Put a floppy disk in the A: drive and select Create Disk

When you’ve loaded DOS on your floppies, label two of the disks “Ghost” and copy the Ghost executable (Ghost.exe) to them. Then, copy the Ghost.env file (the license file). If you’re cloning Windows NT, copy the file Ghstwalk.exe.

Using Fdisk to repartition the hard disk
Once you’ve prepared all of your driver and boot disks and you’ve backed up the data that you want to keep, you’re ready to use Fdisk to wipe the hard drive. Use the floppy disk that you formatted with DOS to boot the laptop that will become your host machine. If you’re using a Windows 98 boot disk, select (2) Start computer without CD-ROM support. When you see the A: prompt, type Fdisk.

The first screen will ask if you want to enable large disk support. Since we’re using Fdisk to remove a previous partition and not to create one, it doesn’t matter whether you answer Y or N. Since we don’t want FAT32 installed (Windows NT won’t run on a FAT32 system), however, we’ll play it safe and choose N.

The next screen presents four options:
  1. Create DOS partition or Logical DOS Drive
  2. Set active partition
  3. Delete DOS partition or Logical DOS Drive
  4. Display partition information.

Choose the fourth option to see how your hard drive is currently configured, as shown in Figure A. Our test machine has both a DOS partition and an Extended DOS partition of 2045 MB each. We’ll remove both.

Fdisk displays your hard drive’s partition information

Note that there’s one non-DOS partition. That’s Compaq’s diagnostic partition, so we won’t delete it. After you review the partition information, hit [Esc] to return to the previous menu. Now, choose Delete partition or Logical DOS Drive, as shown in Figure B. The next screen asks which partition you want to remove. The order in which Fdisk lets you remove partitions is:
  1. Logical DOS Drives in Extended DOS Partitions
  2. Extended DOS Partitions
  3. Primary DOS Partition

Choose Delete Logical DOS Drive(s) in the Extended DOS Partition.

Deleting Logical DOS Drives is the first step in repartitioning a drive with Fdisk

Now, you’ll be asked for the Logical Drive that you want to delete. Since you’re confident that this data no longer needs to be used or that you’ve backed it up and saved it somewhere on the network, you can proceed. Enter the drive letter(s) to delete. In this case, the hard drive used one partition as a logical DOS drive (named D) that I want to delete first. Fdisk will prompt you to enter the volume label (if any) and will give you one more chance to save the drive. If you’re sure that you want to delete the drive, type Y. Fdisk reports that the drive has been deleted.

Go back up to the previous menu by pressing [Esc] and delete the Extended DOS Partition and the Primary DOS Partition. Now that Fdisk has the information it needs, the hard disk is ready for formatting. Restart the computer so that the changes can take effect. Any formatting of the drives must be done after restarting. Now, you’re finished with Fdisk.

Upgrading the laptop
Before making a clean install of the operating system and applications, you’ll want to make any necessary changes to the BIOS. (A check of Compaq’s site showed that some updates were made to the BIOS since this laptop was configured. I found changes to the hard drive firmware, system ROM, Computer Setup, and Diagnostics. I also had to add new PC Card support and new mouse, audio, and touchpad drivers after the OS was installed. In all, Compaq had nineteen updates for a Prosignia 140 that ran Windows NT 4.0!) Apply your updates, install your OS and applications, and you’re ready to use that laptop as a host machine for cloning all other laptops.

Booting from the CD-ROM eases installation
Here’s a tip to make installation easier. Most new machines have a BIOS setting that lets you boot from a CD-ROM. Sometimes called multiboot, this feature also lets you set the order in which the machine searches hardware for boot information. If you set your BIOS to look at the CD-ROM first, you’ll be able to install Windows NT and your other software applications directly from CD. You won’t need the three NT setup disks. Just remember to change multiboot back to the traditional order of floppy drive, hard drive, and CD-ROM before you use Ghost. Otherwise, your CD-ROM will keep loading the installation software.

OS setup tips
Here are a few tips that you might find handy in the future when you’re installing your OS and preparing to use a host laptop for ghosting.
  • To prevent your host laptop from being mistaken for a spare, label it with a descriptive name, such as Don’t Touch! Or perhaps Host1 would make a good name. Label the hard drive with the same name.
  • Once you have networking installed, you can install your patches and updates from a network drive, instead of from floppy disks, which are slower.
  • NT Workstation 4.0 is temperamental. If you have to uninstall and reinstall some feature that doesn’t get configured properly, such as dial-up networking or TCP/IP, remember to reapply any service packs.
  • Get service packs on CD-ROM. I ran into an annoying problem when I tried to apply a Compaq NIC driver. The drivers couldn’t install until Service Pack 3 or later was applied; I couldn’t apply Service Pack 3 or later off the network until I’d installed the NIC drivers! Luckily, someone in the IT shop had the CDs.
  • If you can’t get NICs to work, check for an IRQ conflict. For some reason, the Compaq cards defaulted to IRQ 5, which was being used by Compaq’s sound driver. Changing the IRQ setting to 10 got me on the network.
  • For NT Workstation installs, set up a Workgroup with a name that will remind you to change it later on the cloned machine. I used Bogus. For NT Workstation installs, note that the extra program you need to run (Ghost Walker) requires the new computer name to have the same length as the old computer name. Keep that in mind when you create your computer name.

Running Ghost
Connect the computers with a parallel data transfer cable via the LPT port. Ghost must be running under DOS on both computers. Make sure that the parallel port is set to bidirectional, EPP, or ECP—not to unidirectional. You may need to experiment with the mode for best performance. Your host computer will become the master (the machine from which you control the connection), and the machine that you’re cloning will become the slave (the other machine that’s participating in the connection). All your input will take place on the master computer. Now, follow these steps:
  1. Insert the floppy disks in both machines and boot.
  2. Type ghost at the prompt of both machines.
  3. Set up one computer as master and one as slave. (You’ll see a message regarding this step, as shown in Figure C.)

Set up your installed laptop as a master and the clone-to-be as a slave.

  1. Select the option to clone disk-to-disk.
  2. Select LPT is master.
  3. Select the source drives and destination drives.
  4. You can change partition details or accept the defaults (see Figure D).

Ghost displays partition details, which you can modify. Note Compaq’s diagnostic partition.

  1. A confirmation screen gives you one more chance to make changes before you start. If the information is acceptable, choose Proceed With Disk Clone. The destination drive will be overwritten.
  2. During the operation, you’ll see a progress bar. Cloning via LPT on a large (4-GB) drive will take a few hours—which is why it’s okay for a small shop, but a large shop will want to consider a broadcast option.
  3. A message indicates when ghost is finished. Reboot the slave machine.

Using Ghost Walker for Windows NT Workstation clones
On Windows NT Workstation operating systems, there’s one more step before the cloned machine can become connected to an NT network. Each installation of Windows NT 4.0 Workstation contains a unique security identifier (SID). This SID allows a workstation to appear as a separate entity than the NT server. However, a cloned workstation will have the same SID as the machine from which it was copied. Therefore, you need to run a program called Ghost Walker (ghstwalk.exe) in order to:
  • Create a unique SID on each clone.
  • Update the NT Registries on both NTFS and FAT volumes with the new SID.
  • Update binary SID security data in the NTFS file system and textual SID data in the NTFS directory and filename structure.
  • Update the Computer Name that’s used by the NT Workstation.

Before starting Ghost Walker, make sure that you remove the cloned workstation from an NT Server Domain. Change the workstation’s computer name; otherwise, when both laptops boot up, you’ll have two names with the same SID. The domain controller will become confused while trying to keep track of the computers. For instance, it won’t know which one to respond to when it sends IP datagrams.

The simplest method is to unplug the cloned laptop’s Ethernet cable before you boot and run Ghost Walk. You also can follow Norton’s directions and go into Server Manager on the Primary Domain Controller (PDC) or Backup Domain Controller (BDC), highlight the computer name, and press [Delete]. You have to have administrative rights to do so.

To run Ghost Walker, insert your DOS boot disk in the clone, reboot, and type ghstwalk at the a:\ prompt. Then, you’ll need to change the computer name. Remember that the new name must be the same length as the old name. You’ll see a “spinner” that shows the program is running, and you’ll see the message, “Updating the Registry of Bootable Volume.” This part of the program takes about 30 minutes. Finally, you’ll be given an update report, as shown in Figure E. After you press any key to continue, you can register the cloned computer on the domain.

Figure E
Ghost Walker reports on the SID changes made to the cloned NT Workstation.

Other options with Ghost
There are many other ways in which you can use Ghost. You can clone partitions within the same machine; you can clone to and from disk images that can be stored on a network and used to clone other machines; you can even store an image on CDs—Ghost is able to span volumes. You also can use Norton Ghost to copy the contents of a partition to another partition. Selected partitions can be copied to an image file, which will be used as a template to create copies of the original partitions. For larger shops, multicasting—cloning several machines at once—is a good option.

In this Drill Down, I used a laplink cable to connect two computers. But I could have saved the hard drive setup into a Ghost image file. Then, the Ghost image file could have been used as a template to create copies of the original disk. You also can connect machines via NetBIOS. You would need a network card in each computer, a converted Ethernet cable, and the appropriate networking software. According to Symantec, connecting via the network results in two to five times better performance than that of an LPT connection.

Ghost is a program that you’ll want to incorporate into your IT shop (whether it’s small or large). Using this program, you can clone standard installations of laptops and other computers. For larger, more mission-critical solutions, Ghost’s netbroadcasting lets you clone many machines simultaneously. Ghost’s abilities to clone selected partitions and to create images that span CDs provide the kind of efficiency and flexibility that your IT shop needs.

Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild and an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional. He also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor in chief, David Bard, he will be traveling to Nepal in April of 2000 to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,305-foot Imje Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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