Deploying a new operating system across a company is a bit like conducting an orchestra: You need the proper instruments in place, and your timing and execution must be right to evoke harmony. Get it wrong and all you get is noise. So for all those would-be maestros of Windows 7, now is the time to take a close look at OS deployment software, which we've tested in our Rolling Review.
Our review focuses on fat client deployment, so we tested products that provide the deployment, migration, and post-deployment management tools necessary to accomplish the task. The jump to Windows 7 from Windows XP, which is what most companies are contemplating, is a rip-and-replace upgrade, so user state migration was a key feature we examined.
We tested products from Acronis, Kace, Microsoft, and Avocent. We invited Symantec/Altiris, and while the company was willing to participate, its product was still in a pre-beta version for Windows 7 deployment and unable to meet our deadline for this Rolling Review. We also invited Novell for its ZenWorks product, but our publishing schedule didn't allow enough time to get the software into our labs.
We also tested XP7, a product from a company called Zinstall. Instead of migrating user applications, files, and preferences from XP to Windows 7, Zinstall installs Windows 7 while also preserving XP on the same machine. Users can toggle between XP and Windows 7. The software works well and is useful for organizations that aren't ready to let go of XP, but it doesn't meet our definition of a full-fledged migration and management product, so we didn't include it in this wrap-up.
Acronis Snap Deploy 3.0 provides a quick option for Windows 7 deployment. Installation was easy because all the server components came packaged in a small executable. Snap Deploy includes a PXE server with a Linux bootloader and Universal IP packet driver, which made it simple to get clients to the pre-boot environment over the network. Within the pre-boot environment, you can connect to the OS deployment server for image cloning and multicasting operations. Acronis offers some functionality to inject hardware drivers into the image, so Snap Deploy met one of our requirements for being able to deploy a single master image to multiple flavors of client hardware. On the whole, Snap Deploy is a good imaging tool, but desktop administrators will have to rope in several other tools to orchestrate the entire upgrade process, and the product offers no client management capabilities. As a result, Snap Deploy is only suitable for the smallest and simplest of deployment scenarios.
Kace KBOX is a series of appliances instead of software. Kace, which is being acquired by Dell, offers KBOX 1000 for client management and KBOX 2000 for OS deployment. You can use each appliance independently or link them together. Of all the deployment products we tested, KBOX 2000 was easiest to get up and running because the appliance takes all of the guesswork out of implementing the product.
KBOX 2000 proved extremely versatile in the labs. With plenty of storage available, the appliance can store and serve out all of the OS images you'd ever need to deploy directly from its internal disk. We accessed a user interface for capturing user profiles from machines we prepped for upgrade by uploading Microsoft's User State Migration Tool to KBOX. The appliance did a great job extracting user profile data from our test clients.
However, it doesn't let you pick and choose individual items within the profile for upload, so we were forced to capture everything. By contrast, Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager and Avocent's LANDesk provide the ability to capture individual files, folders, or preferences from the user profile.
KBOX lets you reuse complex scripts you may have designed during previous OS deployments. Scripts can be uploaded and stored for use as pre- or post-OS deployment install tasks, and you can build complex OS deployment scenarios by dragging and dropping script objects into a deployment job. The result is a fairly robust, object-oriented approach to OS deployment. This is a powerful tool, because enterprises can use a single image while building a library of customizations that can be attached to an OS image ad hoc.
The only area where KBOX 2000 comes up short is error control. When a particular component of an install task failed or didn't work, the cause wasn't immediately obvious, and we'd prefer not to have to spend time fishing around to find the reason. On the whole, however, we're very pleased with KBOX as a deployment product.
On the client management front, KBOX 1000 meets most needs. It has solid inventory and remote management features, and it also offers some software distribution capabilities. However, it doesn't offer any software auditing or software inventory features as of yet. We found a hidden gem in KBOX 1000's remote recovery console, which lets you remotely control a PC even if its OS is corrupted. That's a help desk dream come true. That said, on the client management side, KBOX 1000 was handily beat by System Center Configuration Manager and LANDesk.
Ones That Do It All
Where Kace leaves off, Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager jumps in. Much like LANDesk, Configuration Manager does it all. The full feature set means you'll have to spend some prep time, both for deployment and learning the ins and outs of the product. SCCM has several different server roles and requires a back-end SQL server in large installations, but in small environments you can get away with a single server for all of the server roles.
SCCM is a top-notch product for OS deployment and user state migration. While not as easy to use as KBOX, Configuration Manager had a more functional task scheduler, and its error reporting and debugging tools are superior. Believe us, if you're deploying Windows 7 in any sort of automated fashion, you're going to do some debugging.
No vendor in our roundup beat SCCM's user state migration capabilities. The other players must back up and restore a user profile. SCCM R2 uses a concept called user state hard linking, whereby a Windows 7 image can be overlaid on the existing XP/Vista profile. The result is a much faster deployment. SCCM is complex and comprehensive, so it took some time in the labs to perfect our upgrade process, but once it was complete, we were quite happy with the results.
Out of the box, SCCM includes all of the remote management, client inventory, and software distribution capabilities any Microsoft shop would need. Our only gripe is that you can't natively manage heterogeneous environments, so you're out of luck if you run MacOS, Solaris, or other flavors of Linux. Third-party partners such as Quest offer SCCM extensions that can be used to manage other operating systems, but it would be nice not to have to pony up for additional software. The same limitations apply on the deployment side--it's Windows only. By contrast, both Kace KBOX and LANDesk can deploy MacOS and various Linux flavors.
Avocent LANDesk was the last player in our lineup, and it impressed every bit as much as SCCM. LANDesk provides the widest range of options for OS deployment. The other products in our lineup require you to create and deploy system images using their image formats. With LANDesk, you have several options. For instance, if you've sunk lots of time and effort into creating Symantec Ghost images, LANDesk lets you use them as a foundation for your Win 7 rollout. If PowerQuest DeployCenter is your image of choice, you can use that or LANDesk's own image format, or you can use ImageX to deploy a Windows Imaging Format image.
LANDesk's User Migration Assistant also impressed us. It did the best job at exposing even the most superficial user profile customizations within the management UI. It also gave us the most control over the user state migration process.
While LANDesk didn't necessarily deploy Windows 7 in a way that we could describe as better than the other players, it can deploy and manage the widest range of operating systems. While that distinction is out of the scope of this Rolling Review, it may be relevant for shops that need tools for deployment and management in a diverse environment.
Better Get Ready
One day in the future, your colleagues may access virtual desktops served from a cloud and presented as a three-dimensional image made of nanoparticles that are projected by a smart pad. This will probably happen around the same time that they drive their flying cars to the office.
Until that day arrives, you're going to have to live through at least one more fat-client upgrade. Mainstream support for Windows XP Pro is over, and mainstream support for Vista Business runs out in 2012. The upshot? Windows 7 is coming to your organization. The right deployment tool can make an upgrade less painful, and a sound client management platform will make the new OS easier to live with over the long term. As you build your short list, you should talk to vendors and peers, get gear in your lab for a test run, and use this Rolling Review as your sheet music. With the right tools, you can you can turn a Windows 7 deployment into beautiful music.
Randy George is an industry analyst covering security and infrastructure.
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