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Alternatives for building and deploying Windows images

Alternatives for building and deploying Windows images

I’ve written many articles about Windows deployment, and the main tool I’ve used for building and deploying Windows images to PCs and servers is the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT), a free set of utilities and collection of documentation available for download from Microsoft. I guess I’ve gravitated toward using MDT over the years for two reasons. First, of course, because it’s free! And second, since Microsoft makes Windows, you’d figure they’d also know how to deploy it properly!

MDT is also the de facto tool you will probably be using for building and testing your images if you plan on deploying them later using System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM). Building a desktop image you can easily manage and maintain is an art with honing if you’re an administrator who manages an environment consisting of PCs, laptops, and other form-factor devices running Microsoft Windows. But as I said several years ago in this article published in TechNet Magazine, there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building and deploying Windows images, and there are many tradeoffs to consider when devising a strategy and process for building, testing, updating, and maintaining your master images for deployment.

That’s why it sometimes pays to think outside the box. After all, just because MDT is free, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clearly the best solution for Windows image creation. And just because Microsoft makes Windows doesn’t mean they have the best tools and methodology for deploying it. Perhaps it’s worthwhile considering other tools and solutions for Windows image building and delivery besides those offered by Microsoft. Why be so conservative? Why not live on the edge a bit and see what else is out there? Well, that’s what this article is all about. So what’s out there besides MDT and SCCM that you can use for building and/or deploying Windows images? Let’s find out!

Deploying Windows images: SmartDeploy

SmartDeploy

One of my colleagues who works in a large enterprise environment calls SmartDeploy “MDT on steroids,” and that’s probably not too far off the mark. Advertised as “disk imaging software reimagined,” SmartDeploy is touted as the most reliable, easiest imaging and deployment experience you can use for any device. SmartDeploy is a solution that provides you with tools you can use for creating and maintaining a single golden image you can deploy to any endpoint model in your environment. You can go from cold boot to the Windows login prompt in less than 30 minutes in most cases, which can often represent a considerable time-saving over traditional Windows deployment solutions. The cloning or “ghosting” technique used by SmartDeploy uses file-based imaging instead of legacy sector-based copying, and this means you can take advantage of storage consolidation features like deduplication for greater efficiency.

Perhaps the feature that excites me most about SmartDeploy is that you can download from them thousands of different Platform Packs, which are collections of device drivers put together by SmartDeploy technicians that contain all of the drivers that a specific make, model, and operating version might require. This alone can save you tons of preparatory work in your deployment and migration projects since you won’t have to spend many hours hunting for, downloading, importing, and organizing your own library of device drivers for your various types of endpoint devices. Migrating user data is also simple using SmartDeploy, which saves you time and worry when you’re migrating from Windows 7 or 8 to Windows 10. SmartDeploy even includes a simple Answer File Wizard that can be used to gather the information you need to perform a completely unattended, remote installation of Windows to systems at a remote branch office.

Of the various third-party Windows imaging and deployment solutions I’ve hunted down and examined of late, SmartDeploy is the one that has most caught my interest and attention. You can find a general overview of what their solution provides on their website, but I recommend that you request a demo from them so you can see their solution fully in action.

Acronis Snap Deploy

Acronis

Acronis Snap Deploy 5 is a deployment solution touted as being able to let you provision hundreds of systems as fast as you can provision a single system. Compared to MDT, Snap Deploy is a more user-friendly solution and it can be used both for bare-metal deployments and re-deployment to live Windows systems. Snap Deploy utilizes the Acronis AnyData Engine to let you create an exact image of any standard configuration you choose including the operating system, configuration, files, and applications. Deploying Windows images to multiple machines can be done in a single easy step. Currently, version 5 of Snap Deploy supports deploying Windows 10 or earlier (and also Windows Server 2012 R2 or earlier), but you can also deploy Linux if your environment is mixed and includes that platform. There are several video demonstrations of Snap Deploy on this page of the Acronis website, and it’s worth your time to take a look at these before you consider going any deeper into the product.

Specops Deploy

Specops

I’ve worked a lot with System Center Configuration Manager over the years and have even been Series Editor for several free ebooks that Microsoft Press has published for organizations that use SCCM. But I have to say that I’ve always found SCCM somewhat clunky to use simply because it’s so powerful and flexible that it can be daunting to figure out how best to make use of it in any given situation. That’s why Specops Deploy from Specops Software caught my interest when I recently took a look at it. Specops Deploy leverages the functionality of Group Policy, which means you can use it to automate operating systems and applications in an Active Directory environment by directly targeting user and computer objects contained in an organizational unit (OU) in your Active Directory domain. Specops Deploy can also be used to capture your operating system image, save the user state information for installation, manage each user’s local settings, and remotely manage and monitor multisite deployments.

Specops Deploy supports deploying Windows 10 and actually makes use of the same MDT and ADK that SCCM uses for building and deploying Windows images, the difference being that Specops Deploy provides capabilities for one-click operating system capture, patching directly from Windows Update or WSUS during the imaging process, and specially developed customized task sequences for new and refresh scenarios of desktop deployment. Specops Deploy also provides you with real-time monitoring of your deployments as they happen, and it includes a proprietary log viewer with error filtering to help you troubleshoot more easily should something go wrong. You can also dynamically purge and copy critical deployment logs to aid in troubleshooting deployment issues. Add to that extensive IIS-integrated reporting capabilities, application deployment that uses Active Directory security group-based targeting, inventory collection using Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) queries, and more, and you’ve got quite a capable and powerful alternative to SCCM in Specops Deploy. More information about the capabilities and features of Specops Deploy can be found on this page of the company’s website.