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Toolbox: New Products for IT Professionals

Greg Steen

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Microsoft. All prices were confirmed at the time of writing and are subject to change.

SmartDeploy Enterprise

smartdeploy.com

The larger your organization, the greater variance there will be in the hardware and software configurations you’ll need to support. As a systems administrator, you most likely have images of the different configurations for your environment to speed the deployment of new or updated systems across the organization. Maintaining an image for every different hardware system when the application stack installed on those systems is so similar seems like a waste of space and time for creating, updating and managing those system images.

There is a tool that can ease system image deployment, as well as reduce the number of images you need to have on hand: SmartDeploy Enterprise from Prowess Consulting. After getting the software installed, you can quickly create and deploy your first image. SmartDeploy distills the deployment process down into five steps:

  1. Building a master installation
  2. Capturing the image
  3. Creating a “Platform Pack”
  4. Creating the deployment boot media
  5. Deploying the image

The master installation is a virtual machine (VM) you create with any of the major virtualization platforms, like Windows Virtual PC or VMWare. Once you have the system up-to-date with all the programs and patches you want to load on that VM, run sysprep.exe to prepare the system for image capture, and then shut it down.

SmartDeploy Enterprise

SmartDeploy Enterprise

You won’t need to install any machine-specific drivers or software as the Platform Pack you build (or download) will include all the necessary files. This is what lets you have one software image for a variety of target machines. Because you have a smaller set of images to manage and they’re all VMs, it’s much easier to keep them up-to-date with the latest software and security patches. This factor alone could greatly reduce maintenance times.

The next step is to capture an image of the VM using the SmartDeploy Capture Wizard. Point the wizard to your VM file, enter volume license information if applicable, and enter a destination for the resultant prepared Windows Image File (.wim). The SmartDeploy Capture Wizard also lets you create a Differencing Image, which helps with updates and add-ons to existing images because it creates a file of only the differences between the two VM references.

Next, use the Platform Manager to create or modify your Platform Pack files. The Platform Pack file contains all the machine-specific drivers and software necessary to support a target system type. You could also create a Platform Pack file that supports all of the different target machines in your environment. This is probably the most complex part of the whole process. Fortunately, Prowess Consulting has created a number of platform packs for the major hardware vendors. These packs are available on the company’s Web site.

For manual packs, the documentation shows you how to create and lay it out. Then, use the SmartDeploy Media Wizard to create the boot media. You’ll use this to start up the target machines to accept your newly created images. The wizard will create a disk containing the SmartDeploy Preinstallation Environment (SmartPE) you’ll launch to deploy your image. Deploying the image, the last step, is also wizard-driven via the SmartPE environment’s Deploy Wizard.

SmartDeploy Enterprise starts at $1,995 per operating technician (so you can deploy to or from as many machines as needed) and supports deployment of Windows systems from Windows 2000 through Windows 7/Windows Server 2008 R2 for both 32- and 64-bit versions. There are three support options available depending on your requirements, ranging from $299 to $1,300 per year. A free trial is also available for registered users via the product Web site.

If your deployment images are taking up way too much space, or your deployment process for new systems is taking way too long, or you’re just looking to simplify the management of your whole deployment process, you might want to consider adding SmartDeploy to your toolbox.

Tweak7

tweaks.com/software/tweak7

As an IT Pro and power desktop user, you have undoubtedly tweaked and tuned your system to eek out as much performance and streamline your Windows experience to suit your needs. Under the hood, Windows 7 has a ton of features that you can tune and tweak in that regard, but finding them can be difficult. There’s one tool out there that centralizes your control over some of these features to help get your system up to your specifications—the Tweak7 utility from Stardock.

This latest version of the company’s Windows “tweaking” tool has many of the previous versions’ features plus new features for Windows 7. The straightforward GUI splits the options into categories: Welcome, Resources, Security, Display, Power, Performance, Usability and Miscellaneous. To start tweaking, you simply pick a category and then pick a tab.

One nice thing about the interface is that there are numerous help icons and “hover-overs” that give you enough information about the tweak or item in question to determine whether you really want to proceed. The initial Welcome tab also gives you recommendations right away for tuning your system, including removing programs from your context menus and checking to make sure your display drivers are the most current available. Clicking a recommendation takes you to a detailed view on one of the other categories.

The Resources category is split into five tabbed sub-categories. What’s Running shows you, much like the Task Manager, the running processes on your system and the executable’s location. It also gives more detailed process information like kernel handles and GDI objects, descriptions when available, and one-click termination and Explorer to location.

Tweak7

Tweak7

The next tab, Start Up Programs, shows you all the programs that launch on system startup and lets you deactivate those you deem unworthy. Here, too, you’ll get detailed program information and file locations, as well as uninstall options and deactivation recommendations. 

The next three tabs—System Profile, Service Profile, and Services—let you customize what native services will run on your system based on your usage. Here you can choose a basic option, such as “I want to play games,” or you can manually check on and off services at your discretion. The Security category lets you control elevation prompting and login requirements. Also, you can specifically disable UAC or non-administrator registry stores. The Display shows detailed information about your graphics cards, such as driver versions, Aero test results and Direct3D capabilities, in addition to links to tasks like changing font settings, color calibration or even disabling the Desktop Window Manager on startup.

The Power category gives you detailed battery information, such as rate of charge and “low battery” thresholds. You can enable or disable Hibernation or build an estimate of the machine’s carbon footprint. The Performance category is split into CPU, Memory, Disk and Internet sub-categories. Besides showing tons of details about your hardware, you can also set Prefetch and SuperFetch settings, disable paging for the kernel and drivers, check for memory problems and tweak your Internet connection for better performance based on your typical usage.

The Usability category lets you change context menu items, disable shell extensions, move your Windows profile information to an alternate location, and disable confirmation notices, such as the warnings you get before emptying the recycle bin. Finally, the Miscellaneous category wraps it up with six sections:

  • Environment lets you tweak your system and user environment variables.
  • SMARTGuard shows you detailed information about your drives if they support the Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Techno
  • File Locks lets you drag a locked file onto the UI and then shows you what program or process has grabbed onto the file.
  • Events shows you the detailed timing of your startup, shut down and resume cycles, broken down into the different areas such as “kernel startup” and “prefetch duration.” 
  • Search Engine lets you pick your default Internet Explorer search box reference.
  • System Tools gives you quick links to the Task Manager, Resource Monitor, System Restore, and the Reliability and Performance Monitor.

There’s an almost full-featured (you can’t move your Windows profile nor skip confirmation dialogs), free 30-day trial available for download. A single license for Tweak7 will run you $19.95 direct. If you want a central place to do your basic system tweaking on your Windows 7, you might want to take a look at adding Stardock’s Tweak7 to your system.

Greg Steen is a technology professional, entrepreneur and enthusiast. He’s always on the hunt for new tools to help make operations, QA and development easier for the IT professional.

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