Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apparently, It Is Too Much To Ask

Many moons ago, Peter Norton created a product called "Ghost." What Ghost allowed you to do was to create a snapshot, bit-for-bit, of a computer hard drive and store it as what is called an image. The image can then be written back to a hard drive in the case of a catastrophic failure or virus infection and the machine is back to its old self in a matter of minutes instead of hours. The other advantage of this capability is the ability to deploy that image to several other computers.

Let's say you purchase ten computers for your company. For each of those computers, you need to install any updates that have been released since it left the factory as well as the programs your office typically uses such as time clock software, office productivity (spreadsheet, word processing, etc.), customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, etc. With Ghost, you spend the three or four hours installing updates and software and tweaking the configuration on the first machine. You create your image file from the machine that is done, then deploy the image to the other nine (you can usually deploy to all nine at once). Once you have the first built, it can, potentially, take you less than an hour to have the other nine ready.

Over the years, there have been many other drive imaging solutions introduced (including open source - free - solutions) and products like Ghost have grown into total system management solutions monitoring system status, pushing incremental updates, and even handling disaster recovery with a simple reboot of the client machine. Like many other programs that did something and did it well, Ghost (and several others) has become a bloated bastardization of its old self.

All I need is a product I can have installed on one or more machines that will allow me to plug in a hard drive via USB and either capture or deploy an image. I don't need live system management. I don't even 'need' network deployment. I just need to be able to restore a machine in less than a day (or two).

I have tested some open-source solutions. While they fit the bill operationally, there have been some issues with reliability. Plus, they tend to be slow. I have located a couple of paid products but they seem to be a little big on themselves.

There is a company, Acronis, that provides several different disaster recovery and management tools. They have everything from server-based system management solutions to local drive-to-drive deployment products. For the system management solutions where there is a constant (or at least regular) communication between the host server and the individual workstations, I understand their licensing model. For the drive-to-drive solution, I don't. Basically, you have to purchase a license for each computer you have the software installed on and each computer to which you push an image.

Frankly, that's insane. There's nothing like nickel-and-diming your customers to death. It harkens back to the days when the cable company used to charge a monthly fee per active cable outlet you had in your house, regardless of whether there was a TV connected to it or not. It was a practice they abandoned years ago (I think because they were forced to).

Granted, the licenses for the product I need are not expensive but they add up. To include the ~500 computers we manage, that's over $12,000.00. I would rather pay $500 for the license to install on a host system and deploy as needed than $25 a pop. I'd even be willing to pay $100 for the host and $2.50 per machine imaged. Either way, management would be a nightmare. There's no sense including existing hardware we haven't imaged yet. New machines wouldn't be difficult to include. But then we'd have to keep track of which computers we'd imaged and which we hadn't. I just don't have time for that.

I did find a commercial product that fits my needs but I just don't get that polished vibe off of it. It seems barely better than the open source solutions we've looked at (and it's just about as slow).

Symantec (Norton) still makes a version of Ghost that fulfills my need but they don't sell it as a stand-alone product. It has to be purchased as part of a solution suite. But why would I want to pay for solutions I don't need? Besides, their licensing model is very similar to Acronis'.

Oh for the days when I could go down to the store, buy a CD for each host machine for $100 or so and have it just work.

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