Creating Your Own Disk Images – Why And How

My old system has been sitting unused on my desk for the last couple of months. Part of the reason that I wasn’t using it was that I had installed Windows Server 2003 on it with the intention of using it as a web and backup server for my home LAN. The problem was that I had never used Windows 2003 before, so I was spending more time reading about configuration options, rather than actually configuring it.

Previously I had tried installing Linux on it but found that trying to get Samba, Apache, PHP and all the other pieces I needed to work was also too much hassle. Eventually I gave it up as not so much a bad idea, but just an idea that I didn’t have time to fully research and implement. I’d love to have the time to delve further into the Linux idea, but for the time being it’s not to be.

So out come the original restore cd’s, and after 20 minutes I’m back to Windows XP Home, along with all the additional rubbish that the manufacturer feels that I should have. AOL, no thanks. McAfee Anti-Virus, no thanks. The list goes on. So before I do anything else, all these programs have to come off. Another 30 minutes, and half a dozen reboots later, I’m back to a base Windows XP install.

Given that this computer is a couple of years old, it only has Service Pack 1 installed. So now it’s time to install Service Pack 2. An hour later, and I’m ready to install firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. For any Windows system connected to the Internet, these types of programs are an absolute must.

At this stage, I’ve spent the best part of 2 hours just making the system usable. And I’ve yet to apply the updates that were released after Service Pack 2. So it’s time to connect it to the LAN and the Internet. Before I connect any machine to the LAN, I like to make sure that there is an Administrator password set. Unlike XP Professional, the “Local Users and Groups” snap-in is not available for the Microsoft Management Console, and the Administrators account doesn’t appear in the User Accounts applet in the Control Panel. So a reboot into Safe Mode is required to set the Administrator password.

Now with the firewall up and running and the anti-virus installed, I feel relatively safe connecting to the Internet. On to Windows Update. First off, I have to install Windows Genuine Advantage before I can get any updates. Once done, there are 60-odd updates to be installed. Away I go, and one hour and a reboot later, the system is as up to date as I can get it.

So nearly four hours after I started, the system is up to date, protected and ready to go. On goes Firefox and Thunderbird, bookmarks are imported, and email accounts setup. After spending all this time just getting fully set up, I was fairly annoyed as you can imagine. The initial re-imaging of the system took less than 20 minutes, wouldn’t it be a lot easier if I had an image to reinstall with the all the updates already applied?

Google was called on, and that’s how I found PING (PartImage Is Not Ghost). For those of you in the know, Ghost is a disk imaging program that allows you to create an image of your entire hard-drive, and then use that image to restore your computer if and when you need it. It’s also used by manufacturers to create restore CD’s. In fact it’s used on the restore CD’s that came with my computer. The problem is that Ghost costs money, and based on my own experience, it doesn’t always work as expected.

Back to PING. This is a free program that performs the same functions as Ghost, but without the hassle. But the real stand out feature is that it allows you to boot into a PXE environment and create/ restore images over the network.

Booting into a PXE environment means that no boot CD’s are needed, the required OS and software are stored on the server machine and downloaded and stored in RAM whent he client machine boots. To use PXE you need a network card that supports the PXE standard. The good news is that the vast majority of network cards available today do support PXE, though sometimes you need to enable “Boot from Network” in the system BIOS.

The server side contains a DHCP server, TFTP server and an OS image. The DHCP server automatically assigns an IP address to the client machine to allow network access, the TFTP server allows the transfer of the OS image to the client machine & the upload of the disk image from the client to the server. The OS image contains a basic Linux OS along with the disk imaging software.

The installation and set-up was a breeze, and in no time at all I was creating an image of the hard-drive on my old system. The image was automatically copied over the network to a removable hard-drive, and 30 minutes later, I had a full disk image to restore from.

Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or the fact that I had spent so long staring at a computer screen, but I decided to re-image the system over the network using the disk image that I had just created. If it went wrong, I would have just wasted 5 hours, and would have another 5 hours of work to get the system back up again. Thankfully it worked just as advertised, and the re-imaging process took less than half an hour.

While I may not have to use the image all that often, it is nice to know that if I do get it into my head to install another OS, and if it goes wrong, I can be back up and running with a fully up to date OS within 30 minutes.