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Cloning: A Fast, Easy Way to Set Up Multiple Computers

Automatically set up the same software configuration on dozens of computers

By: Kevin Lo

March 9, 2007

You've volunteered to set up a 20-machine computer lab at your local youth center, but don't have the time to install the operating system and drivers, download software patches, and perform all sorts of additional configurations on every computer. One solution? Cloning. No, not yourself — your setup configurations.

Computer cloning, or ghosting as it is sometimes called, is a process that involves setting up the operating system, drivers, software, and patches on a single computer, then automatically replicating this same setup on other computers using specialized software. Depending on the type of software you use, cloning can be done using a disk or other media, or over a network.

No matter what software you use, cloning allows you to efficiently set up multiple computers, and can be done at any organization where you want to ensure that every workstation is configured the same way and with the same software.

Cloning Versus Imaging

A procedure similar to cloning is disk imaging, where you make an image (an exact mirror copy, not to be confused with a photo image) of a working system for backup and restore purposes. This way, if your system malfunctions, it can be restored exactly as it was.

Cloning, too, involves creating an image: the difference is that with imaging, this mirror copy is used to help you restore a system to its previous state, whereas with cloning, an image is what you use to set up a system in the first place.

The Advantages of Cloning

There are obvious reasons to clone computers in a community technology center (CTC), but cloning can also be a huge help for any organization that needs to configure multiple computers at once. Setting up just one workstation manually can take anywhere from a couple hours to an entire day; deploying an image on the same machine, in contrast, takes much less time. (There may be, however, some legal grey areas with this practice if you don't have a software license for each program on each machine.)

Cloning or imaging can even be advantageous for a standalone machine that's not on a network. In some cases, it can actually be easier to restore a problematic computer using an image rather than spend the time to troubleshoot it. For example, imaging can help you to recover after a disaster or even replace hardware. If you needed to upgrade your computer's hard drive, you can restore an image — the setup and configurations of the hard drive — to the new hard drive. Imaging can even be used to complement your organization's data backup system, though it should not be considered a substitute.

Cloning Software and Solutions

No matter what cloning software you use, it's imperative that the system you plan to clone (also known as the source or reference computer) is set up exactly as you want it. This means that you have all the correct software, patches, and drivers in place before you start copying it. Plan carefully, and test your work; remember, if the system you're cloning is a "bad sheep," the copies will be bad, too.

Cloning works best if all of the computers you're configuring have the same hardware and devices (such as the graphics adapter, hard drive, and network adapter); if you are working with different equipment, you may want to look into a different type of solution to set up your computers.

In addition, the machines you clone must all use the same operating system (while cloning can be performed on any platform, Mac clones won't work on PCs, Linux clones won't work on Macs, and so on).

Yet whether you are working in Windows, Macs, or Linux, there are several proprietary and applications — as well as free, open-source options — you can use to clone your system.

For example, Acronis True Image and Symantec Ghost are popular commercial products to clone PCs, but can cost several hundred dollars, depending on how many licenses you need. For Macs, Bombich’s free Carbon Copy Cloner has been known to be effective, but make sure the machines you're copying are using the same processor. You can find other free solutions, such as Runtime Software’s DriveImage XML and the open-source g4u ("Ghost for Unix"), online.

If funds are limited, however, Windows users may want to check out some of the free Microsoft cloning and imaging tools out there. Windows' System Preparation tool, which is bundled free with Windows NT4, 2000, XP, and Vista, can help you to customize and install multiple Windows workstations. Should you need to recover lost information, Windows' System Restore works as a built-in “snapshot” mechanism, allowing you to restore your PC to a previous state if something goes wrong.

For more information on Windows cloning and imaging tools, please see Windows XP Professional Resource Kit: Automating and Customizing Installations.

Cloning Forward

If cloning sounds like something that could work for your organization, where should you begin?

If you are planning an IT overhaul and will need to set up multiple computers, talk to your IT person or a consultant about what cloning software fits your needs and budget. If you have a few spare computers, you may even want to download trial versions of different cloning software to try them out before making a final purchase. If you're outsourcing the project, be sure to hire a vendor with cloning experience, and make sure you factor the cost into your RFPs.

Now, time to look into a way to clone funders.