When Hewlett-Packard and Compaq merged a while back they formed a behemoth-conglomerate containing two of the world's most popular server lines—Compaq’s Proliant family and HP's Netserver line. Already a leading-edge distributor of high-end servers equipped for mission critical applications as well as simple file servers, Compaq’s Proliant line of servers became the primary offering for the reinvented HP.
Nevertheless, many IT professionals were concerned that, although the Proliant name would be used, the new Proliant series might lose some of the fantastic tools and utilities that many server administrators had become accustomed to. One such tool was the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit, a powerful and highly useful set of scripting tools designed to aid in the rollout and deployment time of Proliant servers.
A company's need
I was one of the administrators who was apprehensive about the potential demise of the Compaq products that my company had become so accustomed to and our installed base so dearly relied upon.
As the leading producer of 911 call centers (Public Safety Answering Points), my company uses HP/Compaq servers exclusively because their robustness and reliability support the mission critical nature of a 911 setting. In our environment, it is not uncommon for significant quantities of servers to be deployed, and in the interest of expediency and efficiency, it is critical that a streamlined approach for server configuration be taken.
Accordingly, a detailed and rigorous set of guidelines, procedures, and instructions are prepared for those technicians involved in the installation and rollout process. As such, it is increasingly important for our company to take advantage of any opportunity to reduce the amount of time it takes to configure a server. It is this requirement that drove my decision to investigate and pursue the implementation of the HP Smart Start Scripting Toolkit 2.2.
Given the complexity of our environments, it was not uncommon for a server configuration—or staging, as we like to call it—to take upwards of five to six hours, depending on third party applications, or specific configuration instructions, etc. A good portion of that involved the actual configuration of the operating system to meet the stringent requirements of a 911 call center. We already employed an imaging solution on workstations, combining Microsoft’s Sysprep with Phoenix Technology’s ImageCast imaging software—an inexpensive and reliable, but feature-limited, imaging solution. This process worked extremely well, and it only made sense to investigate the possibility of doing the same thing on servers.
One of the obstacles of simply using conventional imaging procedures on a server is the intricate hardware configurations that usually need to be in place to handle such an image. This is where the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit comes in handy. According to HP, “The Smart Start Scripting Toolkit includes a set of DOS based utilities for configuring and deploying servers in a customized, predictable, and unattended manner.”
With the many different RAID configurations possible, whatever tool was used to streamline this process had to also be flexible. The batch file and scripting flexibility that the Toolkit offered was definitely an important feature that clinched the decision to utilize the Toolkit at our company. As such, my company chose to implement the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit in order to increase the efficiency of our configuration and staging time, and it paid dividends for use, saving us up to three hours of configuration time per server.
I will provide an overview of the HP Smart Start Scripting Toolkit and explain how it might benefit your organization as it did mine.
Download and install
You can download the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit from HP’s Web site. From this location, you can download the Toolkit for no additional cost by simply filling out a short registration. On HP's site, you will also find a full list of servers supported by the Toolkit (most of the major servers in the company's product line now are supported).
Download the Toolkit to a lab server (not the server whose installation process you wish to script). The installation process is fairly simple. Unpack the executable by double-clicking on it and follow the agreeably easy unzipping process. Nothing is actually being installed, but the various programs necessary to use the Toolkit are now available for your use.
How to use
The Smart Start Scripting Toolkit is designed to take “snapshots” of various hardware configurations—RAID configurations, SCSI Controllers, hard drive partitions, etc. In turn the snapshots of the aforementioned components can be used later to automate the configuration of similar servers.
In our case, using the provided utilities allowed us to automate the configuration and deployment various levels of RAID, varying controllers, and of course, the operating system, via an image created with Altiris’ RapiDeploy—all on a bootable CD.
Now, a technician would, after physically installing hard drives and other hardware, boot the server off the CD and follow a moderately elaborate series of prompts (executed in a batch file) and fully configure the RAID, then load the OS onto the server. The end result was that we saved about two to three hours of configuration time per server.
The Smart Start Scripting Toolkit itself is simply a set of DOS-based utilities. The utilities require you to perform many of the steps you wish to save manually, and then run the utility against them so as to capture the information for later use in a batch file. In short, the high-level list of steps to perform are listed below:
- Physical configuration – Here you will connect all hard drives, controller cables, power cables, etc.
- RAID configuration – In this step you will configure the firmware portion of your RAID configuration per the latest documentation for your HP server.
- Install the OS – Using the Smart Start, load your operating system of choice's utility (not the Toolkit—this is the bootable CD that comes with each HP server that assists in the setup of the server, as opposed to simply booting off a Microsoft server, which might require manually loading controller drivers, etc.).
- Configure the OS – Configure all of the operating system’s universal settings that you can (to save time after you deploy the image). As I mentioned we try to keep our environments much the same, so there were a variety of items we could configure that would save time in the server deployment.
- Use the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit – See next section for further details.
- Sysprep the OS – If you desire to use Sysprep (highly recommended) then this is where you run that Microsoft utility.
- Image the server – Image your computer using your chosen imaging software (Altiris RapiDeploy in our case). It’s worth mentioning that Altiris and HP work very well together, and there are portions of the Toolkit that integrate with Altiris' products.
- Configure your deployment method – Using Altiris RapiDeploy Console, or a bootable CD, configure your deployment method and begin deploying images.
Most of the steps listed in the previous section are beyond the scope of this article in terms of the details necessary to describe them, however because step 5 is the most important component, I will spend some time in this section looking at this step in further detail. Here, it is necessary to boot your server off a boot disk with certain Smart Start Scripting Toolkit utilities loaded onto it. HP uses the term "Server Profile," where you use a source server that has been completely configured to create a Server Profile, or snapshot of the pertinent hardware components.
The major components of a Server Profile include the following:
- Hardware script file – This contains the hardware configuration information on your server.
- Array script file – This contains any hard disk array configuration your server may have.
- Partition script file – This contains your hard disks' partition information.
- Unattended text file – If you should choose to perform an unattended installation of the OS, this file would be necessary.
- RILOE script file – If you have a Remote Insight Lights-Out board installed in your server you can use the Toolkit to aid in its configuration.
Each of the above components has a corresponding program in the Toolkit that, when copied to a bootable CD, can be used to capture the configuration of your server. For example, the Array Configuration Replicator Utility (ACR.exe) is designed to obtain the RAID configuration of your server. When copied to a bootable disk, and then executed with certain command line combinations whilst the server is booted from the disk, you can obtain the exact information necessary about the RAID configuration to use in a scripted install.
Once you have obtained all the applicable configuration files, it is up to you to determine how to deploy the configurations. In our case, we used extensive batch files that would allow for multiple hardware and RAID configurations and then combined those files with the power of RapiDeploy and created bootable CDs. That is the best part about this utility—you have great flexibility, depending on your scripting knowledge and what your intended business uses are.
As with any technology, there are always risks and drawbacks. While the Smart Start Scripting Toolkit’s benefits are potentially huge, it is a complex product. At the front of the user guide for the Toolkit, it mentions that this product is “Intended for experienced IT Professionals. Some of the utilities in the Toolkit can cause loss of data if not used correctly. Thus, a clear understanding of these utilities is critical. Be sure all mission critical systems will remain active in the event of system failure before using the utilities."
That is a pretty clear warning that this product is not for the faint of heart. Before using this tool, ensure that you have a solid understanding of HP servers, the chosen operating systems, and most importantly, the Toolkit itself and how it functions. I would also recommend that you perform most, if not all, of your procedures in a test lab prior to going “live” with anything.
While we only talked about the Toolkit in terms of Microsoft operating systems, rest assured, you can use this utility for other operating systems, including Linux.
In today’s fast-paced and financially lean IT environment, being efficient gives a company the competitive edge. Being able to save 2-3 hours of deployment time per server can potentially save hundreds of hours of time in large deployments. This type of efficiency can allow IT professionals to focus on other areas—in our case, product development.
Jeremy L. Smith, CISSP, is a cybersecurity and public safety professional who has worked with a variety of agencies to improve the security of their call centers and execute their public safety initiatives more effectively, including 911 call taking, cyber security, mass notification, and more. As the former chair of the NENA Security Working Group, he helped lead the development and creation of the public safety industry's first cyber security standards, NG-SEC. He is currently the general manager of the Mass Notification Division of Airbus DS Communications, a leader in the public safety market.