Auto software deployment cuts Durham Council upgrade time

Durham County Council is using automated software deployment technology to roll out a standard desktop image across the county.

Durham County Council is using automated software deployment technology to roll out a standard desktop image across the county.

The approach the council took in its programme to update the software on 5,000 Windows NT4-based desktops, laptops and servers was to take a "snapshot" of the standard desktop configuration and install this "image" on each PC. This image is basically a copy of all data on the hard disc of the PC on which the standard configuration is based.

The image can be burnt onto CDs and distributed to remote offices or transmitted across the local or wide area network.

Durham Council has been using iCommand, a tool from On Technology, to facilitate the roll-out of Windows XP Professional, Office 2000, and Lotus Notes to 30 sites and Durham County Hall.

iCommand records the steps a user would take to install the operating system and applications in a script file. The script file is then used by iCommand to install software automatically from file servers attached to a local or wide area network.

The council's IT is managed centrally by a team headed by support manager Keith Hollins, who has co-ordinated the upgrade programme. His first task was to set a minimum hardware specification (800Mhz, Pentium-based PC with 128Mbytes of Ram) to run the new software. Any machine falling below the minimum specification is replaced by a new Dell Optiplex business PC before the site is upgraded to the new desktop software configuration.

His other upgrade strategy involved existing NT4 machines that required software to be reinstalled. This could not be done remotely, and needed a site visit by a member of Hollins' team. "Any machine that required a rebuild was moved onto Windows XP," he said.

Hollins' IT team had to make several manual tweaks to each new PC before they could be deployed. They needed to be configured to "boot from Lan" when they started up. His support staff also had to note down the unique ID (Mac address) of each network card. Automated software deployment tools used this data to identify which PCs to upgrade.

Once the PCs have been plugged in, Hollins said it takes a member of the IT staff working on-site about 1.5 hours to complete the software upgrade. Without the automated deployment software Hollins estimated that it could take as long as 13 man-days to deploy software across a site.

Following discussions with Dell, Hollins hopes the manual tweaking required for new machines will no longer be required. "Dell will now be providing us with a list of [Mac] network addresses for the new machines, and configure each to boot from the Lan," he said. The first batch of 300 machines configured by Dell was due to arrive at Durham this week.

Along with speeding up software roll-outs, Hollins said using automated software deployment had improved support. "If a problem cannot be resolved in a matter of minutes, my team can now rebuild the computer in the time it takes the user to have lunch," he said.

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