Provision servers automatically with Microsoft, Novell, and Altiris solutions
If server rollout is a headache, your cure might come in the form of automatic image deployment
Most enterprises have dozens, if not hundreds, of servers in their networks. Deploying new servers or updating existing ones with patches and software upgrades can be a never-ending chore.
Microsoft recently released a much-needed server provisioning tool, ADS (Automated Deployment Services), which automatically installs server software on new servers. I decided to check out the new tool -- which comes with Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and can be downloaded for the Standard Edition -- and compare it with auto-deploy offerings from Altiris and Novell.
The three products use a similar architecture: a control server, one or more reference systems to create images, and target servers that receive the images. Both ADS and Altiris’ SPS (Server Provisioning Suite) use SQL Server to store information on individual servers as well as the large image of the software itself. ZENworks uses Novell’s eDirectory.
If the functionality of ADS meets your needs, it’s a nice product -- simple, easy to install and use. It has some features that the other products can’t match, such as the ability to install Windows Server 2000 or 2003 on any appropriate hardware with no scripting. It can also use Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine and the full Microsoft SQL Server 2000 to store data in the image of the operating systems to be deployed. On the downside, it can only deploy Windows Server 2000 or 2003 editions.
SPS and ZENworks 6 are more complex to set up, and deployment of server software images is a little more complex. However, the products can deploy and manage many more server OSes. In addition, both SPS and ZENworks can manage servers remotely; manage, roll out, and check patches for OSes and applications; collect, manage, and update inventory data; and check server health.
My total deployment time for ADS, including ADS server and SQL desktop engine installation, was less than an hour, which speaks to this product’s simplicity.
The beautiful thing about ADS is that an image of the OS can be created on one system and deployed to many similar types of hardware, without the need for scripts to manage different video, Ethernet, or other drivers. But there are some limitations: The systems must all be either uni- or multiprocessor and have the same HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer), the lowest-level driver used by Windows.
ADS employs MMC (Microsoft Management Console), installed via a console snap-in, to control deployment. The SQL desktop engine is less scalable than the full SQL server, but much easier to install and configure. ADS is not intended to compete with SMS (System Management Server) in the areas of patch management, system monitoring, remote control, and so forth. It only deploys images. If you need to add to what ADS installs, you either do it manually or generate a new image (new images are quick and easy to make).
The ADS server also acts as a PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) and DHCP server and can take control of PXE-enabled systems before they try to boot from the local disk. It then boots the server, partitions drives, and installs the OS without requiring the administrator to physically access the system.
Given its platform limitations, ADS is not a solution for heterogeneous networks, but it does what it does very well -- and it’s free.