An unfriendly Ghost

When computers were first introduced into the workplace, they increased efficiency by streamlining workflow and automating or eliminating tedious, repetitive tasks. Ironically, as generations of system administrators and technicians have discovered, setting up numerous virtually identical PC stations is itself a tedious, repetitive task that can drain staff, time, and financial resources. Symantec seeks to address this problem in the newest version of its venerable Ghost software, long used by system administrators and technicians to speed up the repetitive task of PC setup.

Although Ghost's original purpose was simply to allow the quick duplication of hard drives, the current version, Ghost 7.0, extends that functionality with the goal of making the application more useful to enterprises. Among the most beneficial of Ghost's new features is the Multicast Server, which allows the simultaneous replication of a single disk image to multiple remote systems. Ghost also allows administrators to copy user profiles, perform incremental data backups, and customize installation configurations. These features are all controlled using a single system running Enterprise Console, the software's remote administration tool.

With a rich set of configuration and backup tools, Ghost 7.0 appears to offer everything a system administrator could want. But disappointment begins with installation. The user interface is singularly unintuitive, and some users will also have to deal with multiple reboots and an extended installation process. The Windows Installer may need to be updated, and Internet Explorer 4.0 or later (5.0 or later for NT) may need to be installed manually before the console can be installed.

Ghost retains its most ancient incarnation in ghost.exe, and its dependence on DOS is its primary drawback. Clients must be booted into DOS mode any time you need to perform a major operation, including cloning, reconfiguring, or backing up a disk. Naturally, this takes extra time, making Ghost less efficient than competitor Drive Image Pro from PowerQuest, which doesn't rely on DOS mode to clone disks.

Using Ghost's Boot Wizard, it is possible to create a disk to boot in DOS and use this powerful command-line utility to do an old-fashioned, straightforward disk duplication. More commonly, boot disks will be created for the purpose of using Ghost's features remotely. Boot disks can also be created for other configurations, including network drive support, CD-ROMs, and automatic writing to CD-R/RW discs.

Enterprise IT staff will be most interested in using the boot disks to connect networked clients to a Multicast Server for downloading. Because the Ghost executable can be invoked from a DOS batch file, boot disks can be made that automatically connect each client to the Multicast Server, leaving the administrator to do nothing more than choose the disk image file to be installed and begin the transmission.

Image files are the primary way of cloning disks, and they are typically created by connecting a client to the Multicast Server, although they can also be created from the command line using ghost.exe. Image files may be modified using Ghost Explorer, which allows you to alter the contents of an image file and perform the recovery of specific files and directories. An image file will typically be an exact duplicate of a disk or partition, so Ghost includes a SID (system identifier) changer for Windows NT and 2000 systems. The Ghost interface also allows Microsoft's sysprep to be used for this purpose.

Unfortunately, neither the Console nor the Multicast Server provides informative error or status messages. The task window in the Console merely shows that the task is running, and, although the Multicast Server window displays the progress of the file transfer, it will fail silently -- neither flashing an alert nor leaving an error message in the application log -- if, for example, a client fails to connect properly. Also, once a Multicast Server session has been invoked by the Console, it cannot be halted unless the Console is closed or the session times out.

Customization of a system installation may be done in three ways. The most basic is using Ghost Explorer, as explained above. AutoInstall provides a means of creating customized application installation packages and is useful for installing applications onto a running system via the network. Also supported is Microsoft's sysprep utility, but most administrators will prefer Ghost Explorer and AutoInstall.

In addition to full disk cloning, Ghost's Console contains a "Move the User" command for duplicating user profiles. This option allows a variety of user settings, including the registry keys, to be copied to a safe location. This feature is handy but would be even more useful if it had the capability to access basic user information such as data directories from NT user domains or Active Directory. A substantial amount of manual configuration is required to make this feature useful.

Ghost can also provide basic incremental backup. But again, this feature requires the client system to reboot as part of the backup procedure, so it's not very useful for production systems.

Symantec Ghost 7.0 is a product that tries to do too much. Rather than polish and perfect the key features, namely remote disk cloning and custom configuration, which might make Ghost a truly enterprise-capable product, Symantec has provided capabilities, such as the AutoInstall and Move the User features, that simply aren't as useful to large shops.

Instead, the addition of useful context menus, informative error messages, or a more straightforward interface would have made the product much more appealing. Despite these shortcomings, administrators and technicians in small to midsize IT organizations can find substantial value in the capabilities that Ghost provides.

BOTTOM LINE

Symantec Ghost 7.0.

BUSINESS CASE

This disk-cloning utility enables IT staff to configure multiple Windows machines simultaneously, eliminating duplicated effort when setting up virtually identical PC or server configurations. The product could be improved, however, to produce even more cost savings for enterprise IT departments.

TECHNOLOGY CASE

Ghost allows technicians to clone full disk configurations, perform backups, and migrate users. But an unintuitive interface, uninformative error messages, and required reboots make the product of dubious value for the enterprise.

PROS

+ Simplifies replication of PC systems

+ Reduces costs associated with duplicated effort+ Performs backups and migrations.

CONS

- Can be difficult to manage

- Requires reboot of client machines before cloning, reducing usefulness for production systems.

PLATFORM INFO

Windows 98/2000 and Windows NT for Console; Windows 9x/2000, Windows NT, DOS, and Novell for Multicast Server.

COST

Starts at US$15 per node for 100 nodes. URL www.symantec.com

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Tom Maddox

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