Oh, Lord, Kill Me Now
March 28, 2006 9:17 AM   Subscribe

I have to, starting very early in the morning, and well before Friday, install Windows XP, Office 2003, and a number of small insurance applications on 9 different minitowers that are coming in. Assuming they are all exactly the same build, and hopefully, without spending any more money, what would be the quickest and most efficient way to do this?

I'm replacing all the computers in the office with some cutting-edge hardware out of Dell. I'm in town for only this week, and the shipping company that Dell used has just informed me that the computers missed the local truck this morning, and I won't get them until tomorrow. This means I have roughly 2 days to install the software, get the machines in place, and ensure that everything is running smoothly.

I should state that I'm running a Win2k3 server as the main file server, Exchange 2k3 mail server, and all the windows networking stuff.

A friend of mine suggested, because of the same hardware on all of the machines, that I should configure one machine exactly like I'd like them all, and then use a product like Norton Ghost to create an image of that machine on the network. He even managed to provide me with an under-the-table copy of Ghost, but I'm reluctant to use it given its origins as well as my unfamiliarity with the product. I'd hate to have to waste my time trying to learn the product when I could just be making new boxes.

Another idea I had would be to duplicate the XP Pro and Office 2k3 Pro install disks, and try to install the software in parallel, doing a round-robin with my monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I could manage this pretty easily, I suppose, given that XP Pro and Office 2k3 Pro are on volume license install CDs, and that I could probably get away with duplicating them for only the short term of the install period.

Does anyone have any suggestions? I'm hoping that I don't have to pull an all-nighter, but I'm psyching up for the definite possibility.
posted by thanotopsis to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just to be clear: you didn't order Windows and Office pre-installed on these machines? You're installing from your own copies?

I do this sort of thing every couple of years for a client, but generally with no more than four or five machines (TOPS). I've never bothered to try to streamline the process. I simply set all the machines up in one room (using extension cords, if needed), and do the assembly-line thing, going from one computer to the next performing the same operation over and over again.

This works well for about four machines, but nine? I can imagine that might get a little unwieldy. There'd be a lot more downtime. Still, I'd try it at least once. I'm reluctant to try solutions (such as drive mirroring) that are unfamiliar to me, especially when under time pressure. And especially when I know that the assembly-line method will get me there, though perhaps a little slowly.
posted by jdroth at 9:24 AM on March 28, 2006

I know you said you were reluctant, but a tool such as North Ghost will do the job for you, and is perfect for your situation (9 PCs with all of the same hardware and software).

As for learning curve, my experience has been that it's pretty easy to get a hang of as long as you are the least bit technical (and it sounds like you are). Though, I will admit, I've never created an image, but I've certainly installed enough of them.

If you want to be above board about it all, you/your company should purchase licenses for Ghost. Assuming you have to repeat this task sometime in the future, the cost of the licenses will more than make up for themselves in time saved.
posted by bwilms at 9:32 AM on March 28, 2006

Acronis True Image has a free 15-day trial (it's $49.99 after that).

Seriously, it's so much easier to image one box and then load that onto all the other machines, and most of these disk imaging apps are not complicated. Much less effort than doing 9 boxes individually.
posted by briank at 9:33 AM on March 28, 2006

Seconding jdroth. Hard experience has taught me that you should go with what you know in a situation like this. I would definitely duplicate the disks and install in parallel - it really doesn't take as long as you think to hop from box to box. I suggest hooking up keyboards and mice to the systems, instead of carrying one set around. A PS/2 mouse can't be hot-swapped (and PS/2 keyboard shouldn't be), and USB keyboard/mouse could lead to weird driver installations happening at the wrong time. The monitor you can swap if you like, although it certainly won't speed things up any for you. The whole thing will probably take between an afternoon and a day.

If it's really painful, just look at it as a reason to explore disk imaging in the future, when you have time to mess around. There are ins and outs to imaging (computer SIDs, slightly different hardware, and the like) that can be really brutal.
posted by pocams at 9:37 AM on March 28, 2006

Create an image and make sure that all of the drivers that you'll need are on there... Norton Ghost ?
posted by k8t at 9:47 AM on March 28, 2006

Another vote for Ghost here....but beware, Dell has a habit of changing hardware parts around even on the same model numbers. So you may (unlikely, but it's possible) run into some driver issues if you go the Ghost route.

On preview, I'd agree with pocams that since you've never used Ghost before, now might not be the best time to start. I've built machines in parallel like this before. I'd figure 5 hours to get all 9 done. Most of the time will be spent on the old Windows patch/reboot/patch shuffle. Speaking of which, make sure you're installing Windows behind a firewall! You can easily pick up a virus in the time from when you first boot Windows to when you can patch its vulnerabilities.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:04 AM on March 28, 2006

As long as you have all possible drivers for the NIC, you should be in a good shape.... worse case you can download the rest.
posted by k8t at 10:07 AM on March 28, 2006

I can't help you with the specifics here but there's a method often used by OEMs to load a mid-process image onto a machine and get around this different hardware problem. It essentially brings you up to the point in an install where the system restarts into the graphical mode and all needed files are now on the local disk.

Unfortunately what you need for that is the OEM vendor kit and I'm not sure how much luck you're going to have getting your hands on it.
posted by phearlez at 10:18 AM on March 28, 2006

if they are dell's Optiplex line, all machines with the same model number (ie: Optiplex 520) are supposed to be identical, hardware-wise.

as i understand it, the problem with using Ghost or another img prog is that XP activation (and other progs that use an activation scheme, like Acrobat) requires you to use the sysprep utility from MS.
posted by modge at 10:32 AM on March 28, 2006

I would say Ghost as well, but yes, being unfamiliar with it can be a struggle, but there's an easy way to do, unfortunately it involves a little more planning ahead of time to get the BartPE CD with the Ghost plugin working. The nice thing is that once you HAVE the BartPE CD ISO images it's easy to copy and edit it and make new copies. So, this is more for your future reference than anything else.

So, where this me, here's what I would be doing.

1 BartPE Boot Disc with Ghost 8 installed into the plugins/programs folder
1 USB 2.0 External Hard Drive

(1) Get one of the workstations set up the way I want the rest of them set up.
(2) Put in the BartPE boot disc
(3) Plug in the USB 2.0 external hard drive
(4) Restart the computer and boot to the BartPE disc
(5) Launch Ghost 8
(6) Save an image to disk on the external hard drive
(7) Quit Ghost
(8) Restart the machine and eject the BartPE bootdisk and disconnect the external hard drive

(1) Get one of the next workstation.
(2) Put in the BartPE bootdisck
(3) Plug in the USB 2.0 external hard drive
(4) Start the computer and boot to the BartPE disc
(5) Launch Ghost 8
(6) Restore from the image you just made on the external hard drive.
(7) Reset the machine when prompted.

Also handy to have is one of the Dell workstation restore CDs to boot to into Win98 DOS mode so you can then launch and run Ghostwalker, which is pretty important to reset the security ID if you're joining the machines into a domain (and, well, just important otherwise).
posted by smallerdemon at 11:24 AM on March 28, 2006

Is there an extra internal drive bay in the Dell box?
What about prepping a couple machines normally, then open up the other boxes and remove the HD. Install them as a 2nd drive in the completed boxes and do a straight copy of the whole drive. Then replace the drives back in the original machine.

Of course the partitions need to be identical first.

Set IP addresses, rename the machine, and join the domain afterwards. I've done it on older Dell Optiplexes before with no trouble.
posted by pgoes at 11:36 AM on March 28, 2006

If it were me, I'd have a PXE or PE boot imaging system like smallerdemon has described in place that I could use for all such situations. But getting one of those going is work and effort and experience, and you have two days and only 9 machines for a one time deal (this time). Seriously: 9 machines in two days? Why is this hard?

Set them up in a row, and do it assembly line style. Duplicate the media (Is this legal media? why didn't the PC's come from dell with an OS already, they basically all but refuse to ship without an OS), and get them all started at once. If they're identical hardware, the setup including any driver issues and formatting/partitioning the drive, should be identical once you get it once for each box. The setup process is so mindless, that it should be pretty easy to just walk up and down the row like one of those multi-game chess players, hitting "ok" one after the other.

You should be able to install 9 in only slightly more time than installing one, then follow up with 9 copies of Office, etc. If you keep the assembly line in place, then you can also document post-install tweaks that you do, including AV, settings changes, domain joining, on the first target machine, and then do those same steps 8 times in parallel. The real time consumption of Windows installs are the waiting and rebooting, which is perfect for a 9-way assembly line- those reboots give you the time to walk down the line from machines 2-9, and get back to 1 just as it's coming back to the login screen.
posted by hincandenza at 1:38 PM on March 28, 2006

Assuming thanotopsis has not acquired machines from Dell before, and that he ordered these machines with Office -- Dell preinstalls both the OS and MS Office before shipping them to you. If you order one of the Optiplex line (the business model) you do not* get a bunch of crappy spyware preinstalled -- they are a clean build. The home-brand (Dimension?) comes with boatloads'o'bloat, but still preinstalled with OS+Office.

You do need to be careful with your Office keys if you do go down the Ghost route. I imaged a bunch of Dell Optiplex's in my office using partimage (linux ghosty thing, not too bad but a bit of a pig to learn and use). Unfortunately, after the 10th activation of Office or so Microsoft kicked up a minor stink about expired office keys.

But, as other posters have said -- set up all the machines in a line. They'll all ship with monitors/keyboard/mouse anyway, won't they? Just walk the line!

*Disclaimer: this is in Australia. US may differ.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:19 PM on March 28, 2006

Response by poster: (Is this legal media? why didn't the PC's come from dell with an OS already, they basically all but refuse to ship without an OS),

Just to clarify: The machines all shipped with XP Home. We have XPPro(sp2) and Office 2k3 on volume licensing deals purchased through Dell (which match our existing volume licensing and software assurance packages). That's a bit why I'm in a pickle, here.

We got these to replace the existing boxen, so no monitors, which means going up and down the line will mean moving a monitor jack (which won't be awful).

I've done some research this afternoon, and I've succeeded in creating a "setup.exe /a" share on my network DFS for Office 2k3. That'll speed things up, I'm sure.

I'm reading through the setup for Windows PE right now, and I'm wondering (seeing as XP Home is already installed) if that will really speed things up at all. I figure I could just make a share of XP Pro, and go with that, seeing as the installed copy of XP Home is going to have enough in the way of network drivers to find the network share, right?
posted by thanotopsis at 3:11 PM on March 28, 2006

I don't understand the no monitors thing- you mean, you can't work on the machines at their desks by swapping out the monitor connection from the old machine to the replacement one- you have to have these prebuilt and ready to swap in a heartbeat?

WinPE is just an environment that would allow you to lay down a copy of XP to a clean drive, and can be launched from a PXE image of a virtual WinPE CD- but it doesn't get around your monitor issue, and therefore is really not much more efficient than doing it manually, since in some facet you'll be putting media or hitting a network share, and to do so is to execute a command on the machine that requires some kind of interface. Sure you can make it so the OS install is all done manually... but honestly, the OS install is mostly unattended as it is, so other than a couple of regionalization things, the OS will be up and running with minimal intervention once you start it up from CD.

I really, honestly don't understand this- you're making it sound so complicated. Every machine must have a monitor, keyboard and mouse hooked up to it eventually. At worst, it sounds like you need to schedule time in the evening to come in, hook up the new PCs at each desktop to the KVM that's there already, and then walk around the office in the assembly line fashion. The one monitor-less option really is an unattended setup that would get the box to a finished OS with no KVM attached; XP can theoretically run "headless", meaning without even a video card installed, so it's no issue to install the OS with no KVM attached.

Once the OS was installed, you could then do just about all software install and configuration via terminal server windows, and have 9 term srv windows up and running on your own workstation, clicking between the windows even faster than an assembly line in person. But I just don't see how any super, technically savvy solution is ever going to be more efficient than just brute forcing an assembly line at night for only 9 machines, with the new boxes in place at their target cubicles/desk areas. And even then, when you do the swap out, you're going to be doing a lot of "but I had these files on that old box..." anyway.
posted by hincandenza at 3:58 PM on March 28, 2006

Response by poster: As a followup, I'd like to thank everyone for their suggestions. It went down pretty badly, as the machines didn't finally get here until noon yesterday (my flight leaves tomorrow). I was in until midnight installing crap, configuring printers, getting machines under desks, and hooking up all manner of hardware.

A few things I learned from this:
* Office 2k3 may have a network installation option, but unless you've got a 1GB router and adapters, don't do it on a "complete" installation. Swapping the disk may be a hassle, but it's certainly a faster install.

* I didn't realize that the upgrade path from XP Home to Professional retained installed applications. Hurray! I got to keep the OEM install of McAfee, which saved me from another lengthy install.

* The people that made the software installation for the Dymo Labelwriter need to be shot.

* Nine people logging into the network for the first time and retrieving their roaming profiles at the same time makes for some unhappy office workers. Particularly when one of the partners mistakenly stored 20GB of MP3s in her My Documents folder.

* After spending a lot of time crawling around hooking up wires, it's still not a good idea to loudly proclaim that your rugburns really hurt from the night before.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:11 PM on March 30, 2006

Well, it's too late for you but someone on a tech mailing list I am on just posted this link. http://support.microsoft.com/kb/q302577/ "How to use the Sysprep tool to automate successful deployment of Windows XP"
posted by phearlez at 1:59 PM on April 4, 2006

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