Product Reviews

Still a Friendly Ghost

Whether you're an enterprise network or a small company, there's nothing to be scared of with this Ghost.

Ghost Solution Suite
Documentation 25%
Installation 25%
Feature Set 25%
Management 25%
Overall Rating:

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

Ghost gave my IT career a jump-start. The same goes for a whole crop of IT people. Ghost was the tool that arrived just when we needed it to speed up new workstation deployment. During one of my projects many years ago, Ghost increased our deployment productivity by 1,100 percent over the manual method. It was so successful, I ended up getting promoted.

Ghost Solution Suite version 2.0 is Symantec Corp.'s most recent release of a product line that has been around for a generation of IT workers. It has long provided an easy-to-use and high-performance mechanism for deploying operating system images to workstations and servers. Ghost is so synonymous with image deployment that the imaging process for applications is often referred to as "ghosting."

The New Boo
The new version of the Ghost Solution Suite has three major enhancements to the core Ghost engine, as well as a group of updates to the Ghost Console. While Ghost Server, the core Ghost product, does most of the heavy lifting, the Ghost Console often goes unnoticed. It's this console that is the focus of the first major set of enhancements.

The Ghost Console is intended to be an elementary inventory system to help you create dynamic machine groups based on inventory data. Once you've created those groups, you can use them to deploy images and software packages based on policies. You can assign a task to a target machine group that clones the machine, captures the user configuration, deploys a software package, executes a scripted command or many other options. This process lets you take a more holistic approach to deploying OS images, elevating what was before just a straight image dump to a more process-centric approach.

While it certainly has enough features for the small- to medium-sized network, the Ghost Console's functionality may not be granular enough for enterprise-level customers. Most likely, these large customers are already using a fully featured systems management tool like Microsoft Systems Management Server or Altiris. For those who don't, however, the Ghost Console provides some critical inventory information like hardware composition, installed applications and patches on the target systems.

One of the console's new features that will be useful for Vista deployments is the ability to filter all your systems to show which ones are candidates for a Vista upgrade and which ones are not. This feature alone will be a great assistance to the harried administrator tasked with Vista upgrades, but having trouble determining the actual hardware requirements.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. The Ghost Console lets admins perform multiple tasks from a single GUI.

Ghost's improved capability to do user state migration is arguably the most impressive of the new features in version 2.0 of the core Ghost engine. Although user data migration tools have been around for a while, previous attempts were often difficult to implement. The way Ghost handles user migration takes everything off a machine that makes it unique, such as desktop configurations, profile information and application settings.

Another aspect where Ghost excels is in its handling of third-party applications and their associated customizations. It supports configurations for several dozen third-party applications like Yahoo! Messenger, Lotus Notes, Palm Desktop and Acrobat. The comprehensive manual (at 700-plus pages) will give you detailed information about the captured settings. All the migration pieces are now integrated with the Ghost Console itself.

The third new feature is compatibility with Vista upgrades. Any Vista installation requires a 32-bit pre-OS, which is different from any of Microsoft's earlier OSes. Ghost uses this pre-OS, typically the Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE), to deploy images to workstations.

This shift to a 32-bit pre-OS for installation opens up a host of new functionality. First, images are now essentially architecture-independent. You should be able to deploy a Vista image generated on one processor architecture to a machine with a different architecture. You can now mount and edit offline any file-based Ghost images created from NTFS partitions. This means you can manipulate the image contents offline without having to deploy, update and recreate a new image. The 32-bit pre-OS also sets up additional bootstrap drivers that let you use Ghost with more types of RAID arrays than previously possible.

Interestingly enough, in an era where many companies are trying to scale their products to enterprise-level customers, Symantec's focus is on the SMB user. While many enterprise-level customers use the Ghost Server piece to handle their image deployment, they may not need the Ghost Console to manage inventory. SMB customers, however, have a defined need for Ghost Console support and the functionality that comes with the console, including application packaging.

The application packager in Ghost is designed for the IT administrator who's not necessarily a pro at package development. It includes features like pre- and post-installation differencing to identify the updated files and registry keys. These features are available in other packaging tools, but usually for an additional cost over and above the deployment mechanism.

Hauntingly Good
So, do Ghost's new features and functionality warrant a purchase or an upgrade? If you're a small-market customer and you need an integrated inventory and image deployment tool, Ghost is a mature product that has been doing it well since many of us started our careers.

If you're an enterprise customer who's been using Ghost Server for years, you'll want to consider an upgrade, if for no other reason than to add Windows Vista deployment support. In either case, this new release matures a successful product that continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many IT old-timers.

About the Author

Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.


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