One of the problems that still exists when backing up disks stems from Microsoft's elimination of DOS, the basic operating system that predated Windows. This has been replaced in Windows XP by Microsoft Windows Pre-installation Environment (WinPE).
While Ghost has been available in IT management departments for some ten years, in its latest incarnation, the drive cloning product has extended its capabilities as an installation tool, but also enhanced its value for disaster recovery.
Symantec Ghost is based on a mini disk operating system that provides just enough functionality to download a disk image. Microsoft uses a similar system, WinPE, on recent versions of Windows master disks. When suitable, Ghost can also work with WinPE rather than its own mini OS.
The hub of the system is the Ghost Console, which resides on the master server that contains the disk images for a range of business roles. To make life easier for the administrator, the Console can be remotely controlled from other clients on the network.
A disk image contains a pre-configured operating system and all the applications required for a specific job function. The new operating system can be either Windows or Linux and, when the disk has been copied, the PC is set up and ready to use.
Even though this image may be compressed, it is still very large and generates a significant amount of network traffic. The data stream can be choked, but this prolongs the process and any significant roll-out is a compromise between speed and acceptable network loadings. This is unavoidable when a new PC is commissioned, but when an pre-configured PC fails, the process can be an added irritation.
In Version 8.0, Symantec has addressed this problem with a local cloning support feature. This allows a duplicate drive image to be stored in a protected folder, the Client Staging Area, on the same drive it mirrors.
Once the image is downloaded, it can be used to refresh the drive on which it resides, and this reduces network use to the short messages required to trigger the refresh process. This allows failed systems to be brought back up no matter how busy the network is. It also makes it possible to revive remote laptops over a dial-up link. As Ghost can also be used to backup systems, the backup image can be stored in this partition to make restored PCs as recent as possible.
Another network saver is the enhanced support for FireWire and USB storage devices. A typical image usually exceeds the capacity of removable storage, so these connections for removable, disk-based devices should cope with any configuration. The increased capacity also means that several configurations can be carried around on the same drive.
These features alone greatly increase the disaster recovery capabilities of Ghost. Even when parts of the network go down, computers can be reloaded or new PCs constructed on site from an onboard image or portable disk drive.
Conversely, the Gdisk function now completely wipes a disk when a PC's role is changed, when it is decommissioned at the end of a lease, or when it is sold off.
To prevent disasters happening, the same mechanism that Ghost uses to download applications to client systems can be used to roll out fixes and patches. This uses several features of Ghost through the Console.
In use, the Client Inventory feature searches the network and collects hardware and software information from the targeted PCs. These can be arranged according to a wide range of capabilities beyond processor and disk capacity to discover suitable systems for receiving a particular image. Added or deleted applications can be discovered, and the presence or absence of a patch can be determined.
The hard part is setting up the system, but this is mainly a one-off concentration of effort to collect and collate the drive images. Ghost helps with its superb management system, which saves administrators from having to set up a catalog themselves. Unfortunately, the scripting capability to automate tasks is quite a challenge to master. In fact, the advantages of Ghost's flexibility can also be its greatest disadvantage, because it creates plenty of room for errors. The two manuals help, but can be confusing. Perhaps a third manual using a 'Symantec Ghost for Dummies' model would clarify matters.
The main thing is that Ghost does what it is designed to do faultlessly, and simplifies tasks that have hindered the smooth running of IT departments. In review, once the setting up had been completed, the process ran smoothly and did what it had to do without any fuss.
Lack of support for RAID arrays is a serious disadvantage for server roll-outs. Symantec does say that RAID is not officially supported, but hints that it might be possible. However, this is the twilight zone of Ghost's capabilities and best left for experimentation.
In some areas, Ghost is maybe showing its age or, perhaps more accurately, Microsoft is advancing its SMS capabilities and pushing Ghost into new areas. Nevertheless, it is still easily maintaining its position as the leading system for rolling out PC configurations and recovering from disasters.