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I have some questions about how to image a group of PCs. I can use ghost or other software to create an image of a single PC well enough (otherwise this question would just be on superuser). What I want to do is scale this up so I can set up one PC in a group, image it, and then use that image to restore (or even speed initial setup) for any PC in the group. How does this work with licensing for Windows, Office, and other software? How do you handle things like changing computer name? What is your tool of choice for creating and restoring the images?

I want to go beyond the basic windows install and be able to use a process that has most of the windows updates already applied, MS Office, acrobat, java, anti-virus, and some other software already installed, all in a package that's (almost) as simple and fast as restoring a ghost image.

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

You can use Ghost Solutions Suite, Acronis SnapDeploy, or Microsoft Windows Deployment Services to image the machines.

What you want to do is install a Volume License copy of Windows and Office on 1 machine, then customize it how you'd like with other software and preferences. You can customize the user profile as well by making changes to a profile and copying it over the Default User profile.

The Volume License makes the key part much easier. You can use the same VL key for all of your computers. All of the computers do not need to have volume licenses. Microsoft gives you reimaging rights with Professional operating systems. This means that you are allowed to use your volume license media and key to image any computer running the same version of the operating system regardless of whether it has an OEM, FPP, VL, or any other license. Details are here.

After you're done customizing it, create a sysprep answer file. For XP, the answer file is created with a tool distributed with the Windows XP Deployment Tools. In order to have it prompt for a computer name at startup, leave the COMPUTERNAME option blank.

For Vista and 7, the answer file is created with the Windows Automated Installation Kit. If you are not joining the computer to the domain, you can simply leave out the computer name option in the answer file in order to have it prompt for a computer name. If you are joining it to a domain, it becomes a little trickier. There are some workarounds for getting this working available here. You may have to trial a few answer files to make sure it's as touchfree as possible. Some things I remember off the top of my head that you'll want to specify are localization, local administrator username and password, timezone, and network location. I recommend grabbing an un-sysprepped image before you start trialing out your answer files. If it doesn't work, reimage, alter your answer file, and try again.

After you have your answer file, run sysprep, shutdown the machine, and gather the image. Setup a multicast session to send this image to the rest of the computers. Multicast kills network performance for anybody else on the network. If you can, stop multicast traffic at the switch. If the switch does not support that, consider unplugging it from the network while you send the image.

The multicast session shouldn't take long. Maybe up to 30 minutes depending on the size of the image and speed of your network. When it's done, all the machines should reboot and prompt for a computer name. Enter the computer name, sit back, and reward yourself with a nice cold beverage :-)

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Awesome, this will help me a lot. – Joel Coel Sep 1 '10 at 14:53

The only Microsoft supported method of imaging is by using sysprep. There are multiple tools that can be used in creation/distribution of images/installs. Have a look into Windows Automated Installer Kit (WAIK).

You should provided additional details of what you're trying to accomplish exactly. It may be worth breaking each of these into new questions. If you choose to update your question here, please detail which OS[es], and software, you intend to use and I will provide additional links/info.

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+1, The WAIK also includes imagex, a utility for creating and applying WIM (MS's official image format, used for installing Windows too). Also included is WinPE for booting a computer to take or apply images. You can also use WDS to automate deployment of WIM files to new computers over a network. – Chris S Sep 1 '10 at 13:48
WAIK is an exhaustive toolkit. There's a ton of documentation - which can be intimidating - but I found that diving in and reading & experimenting with it was the best way for me to figure out what I needed AND find a few extras I wasn't even looking for (but which solved other problems). – Kara Marfia Sep 1 '10 at 15:02

GHOST Solution Suite 2.5 will handle renaming and other unique settings on the individual systems. Licenses are managed in various ways. If you ahve 10 systems and 10 copies of Office, then you are fine. Same applies to other apps generally. Someone else may have a different experince but a discussion I had with Microsoft in Canada indicated that they are looking for a matching count. 10 systems, 10 licenses. Some OEM will have different license requirements. So imaging a Dell and putting it on an HP without a matching license would be an issue. The way they explained it to me was if the PC has the correct COA on it, you are compliant

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OEM licenses can only be activated 3 times (and depending on the product, must be on the same hardware). Images that are syspreped (or moved to different hardware) will de-activate. So MAK or VL keys are highly recommended if you're going to use imaging for different types of computers. Note that it doesn't follow brand as much as components, a 3 year old Dell image will not work on a new Dell because so much has changed. – Chris S Sep 1 '10 at 13:51

Officially Windows does not support imaging for that. You are supposed to use 'sysprep' If you are on a domain, the domain controller will think they are all the same machine. There are ways around this however, you can use a program called 'newsid' after you bring up an image. But Windows doesn't officially support that. As for licensing, you are supposed to have a license for every machine.

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Yes, I'll have a license for each machine - I'm wondering how others handle getting the right key associated with the right machine. – Joel Coel Sep 1 '10 at 13:41
NewSID has been discontinued. Even Mark Russinovich claims it, ultimately, did nothing of value. – jscott Sep 1 '10 at 13:43
@Joel: The unattend file, processed by sysprep, details machine configuration. – jscott Sep 1 '10 at 13:44
Do not use NewSID, it was a bad idea when it was created, solved a problem that didn't exist, and causes BSOD on Vista and Win7. JScott has it right, sysprep can take an unattend file that specifics all kinds of things including the computers new name (or a way to randomly generate new names). – Chris S Sep 1 '10 at 13:45
I used NewSID quite succesfully with windows XP. I used it with Virtual Server 2005. After cloning machines which were in the domain, the domain controller thought they were all the same machine. So I had to use NewSID on each one of them. And guess what, it worked. So I am glad people have mirrored the old release of NewSID before it was taken down by Microsoft. So I would say it is ok with XP. – Amala Sep 3 '10 at 19:26

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