I’m very interested in the topic of network deployments of operating systems, specifically the various Microsoft OSs, as I can already install linux via PXEboot. There’s two main groups of software in this field – unattended or scripted installs, and imaged installs.
A while ago I found a tool called Unattended, which is a network based unattended installation tool for Windows. If it works, it looks very promising. It’s basically a DOS boot disk which mounts a network share and executes the windows installer. Simplicity. The basic install seems to require you to enter a number of responses to questions (such as administrator password, timezone and Microsoft product key), but the documentation explains how to customise the script to meet your business needs, including examples. Once the OS install is done, Unattended can be configured to install third party packages, as long as the packages (eg, MSI bundles) also support some level of unattended installation procedure.
Today I discovered Free Online Ghost, or FOG. FOG is network based computer imaging tool, designed to both read images from, and write images to hosts on your network. I’ve used tools like partimage in the past for exactly this purpose – creating a golden image of a lab machine and then reimaging the entire lab every couple of months to keep everything clean. FOG seems to be more polished than partimage does, as it claims to support things like creating AD accounts for the machine and so on.
The Unattended documentation includes a concise explanation of why the approach adopted by FOG, partimage, and commercial tools like Acronis and Ghost is bad, however I think this is really a case of using the right tool for the job. I can see a system like FOG being used with great success in a lab environment, or for periodic backup of individual host OSes to near-line storage, providing bare-metal restore functionality without requiring major investment in tape backup expansion. And Unattended makes a lot more sense for initial deployments, especially for my workplace, as we use such a wide range of hardware that an imaged install would be fairly problematic.
There are other commercial systems for doing these deployments of course – IBM Director, HP ICE, Citrix Provisioning Server are just a few of them, but these systems invariably make more sense for in-house deployment control.