How to maintain multiple identical laptops?
November 28, 2006 9:16 AM   Subscribe

We need multiple laptops to have identical computing environments, with the ability to have them updated en masse. What is the best way?

For a friend, conference services filter: My department has a dozen laptops. (PC, XP, mostly ThinkPads.) We provide them to clients on an event-by-event basis, usually for a few hours at a a clip. Each laptop has roughly the same specs, and is loaded with roughly the same stuff (MSOffice, DVD playback, VPN client, etc.). One problem: we inherited these laptops from another department and there's an awful lot of junk on them -- old files, half-uninstalled installs, obsolete user accounts, and so forth.

What we would love to be able to do is this:

1. Standardize the software environment across all laptops, making them identical (as much as possible).
2. Give the client the ability to load files on the hard drive temporarily, having them erased after each event.
3. Plug the returning laptop into a server (or something) that will check and reset its settings and apply any software/ driver updates.

What is the best, fastest, easiest way to do this? I'm particularly keen on #3, since I have a feeling we'll be migrating to different software packages fairly soon.

Thanks in advance!
posted by milquetoast to Computers & Internet (5 answers total)
DiegoStart will allow you to do a (mostly) unattended installation of the OS and software.

We use it for all our loaner laptops, reinstalling after they are returned.
posted by donpardo at 9:23 AM on November 28, 2006

Norton Ghost is supposed to be good for this sort of thing
posted by gadha at 9:25 AM on November 28, 2006

I would agree with disk imaging. You can do an XP install on an external hard drive, add whatever apps you want, and keep it to reimage all the laptops after every event. It might get a little time consuming if you get more hardware, though.

On second thought, this may not be the best solution if you have many different laptop models. Although, you can install an XP copy, then there's a way to basically refresh the XP load so it will detect all your hardware the next time you restart. Do that, then make an image, and it might work for all your computers.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:00 AM on November 28, 2006

Imaging-based solutions can be good, but as backseatpilot says, you can run into issues if/when you start having different models of machines.

Where I work, we use customised "Unattended Installs" (which is what you should Google, if you're interested.) The difference is that instead of just "making a copy" of a Windows installation (like an image-based solution does), you're "reinstalling" Windows in an automated fashion.

Ours is bootable-CD based (because that's what suits us best), but if you're particularly keen on a server-based solution, you may want to check out Microsoft's "Remote Installation Services"

Some Googling may get you good guides, but the ones I've found quickly are:

* Microsoft: "Designing Unattended Installations"
* Svrops: Unattended Install of Windows XP + Office XP
* Lots of Unattended Installation links
* Unattended: An open source tool for creating disc- or network-based unattended installs
posted by insipidia at 11:36 AM on November 28, 2006

There are a lot of ways to skin this cat.

IBM includes a systems management suite called IBM Director for free with every server it sells. Do you happen to have an X series server around? If so you're entitled to Director. (If not, you can also purchase a license for non-IBM gear).

Director (for systems management, predictive failure, etc, plus firmware and updates) and it's Remote Deployment Manager (OS imaging) and Software Distribution (apps) plugins are made for this task, though the latter two cost money ($129 each per client, IIRC). They also offer Alteris for about the same money.

Another alternative which is fantastic for managing a remote desktop infrastructure is VMWare -- if the laptops have network access (assuming that's constantly available to your clients) you can host VMs of whatever images the clients need, and let them RDP or VNC into them as needed. This is truly the theoretical "best way", you can manage their images from one central spot, and clone as many VMs as needed very quickly.

This assumes that video is not a high priority. They can do Powerpoint just fine, but if they're streaming video or doing CAD or anything graphic intensive the VM infrastructure is not really up to that task yet.

The laptops don't even need Windows (and it's EULA & costs) to do this, a wipe and install of a lightweight local Linux could handle RDP just fine. Once they're connected to the Windows VM they can make changes to their hearts content, and when they turn the laptops in, you can revert to a previous snapshot of the VM, and it's set back to the "clean" state ready for the next victim.

This "virtual managed infrastructure" method does have drawbacks though -- the cost shifts, b/c instead of managing many laptop images and paying the cost of that support, you'll have to commit server hardware/storage to hosting the VMs (which you can provision to dynamically allocate resources like more RAM or storage for a user as needed). Save a buck here and spend it there. It is easier though.
posted by edverb at 6:57 PM on November 28, 2006

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