Universal Imaging Utility streamlines the task of giving users identical systems

Universal Imaging Utility Version 4.0
Pros: Works with existing cloning software, inexpensive
Cons: Requires that you run the program on every type of system in your infrastructure to ensure total compliance
Performance: A
Ease of use: B-
Features: A
Value: A+
Government price: $20.14 per seat for 50, $8.48 per seat for 5,000+

In the GCN Lab, we probably use cloning software more often than most agency administrators — at least, if they’re lucky. At the conclusion of almost every software review, we use Symantec’s Norton Ghost to restore a system to a pristine state. That way the next software we test won’t be influenced or disrupted by what has gone before.

Most agencies likely have to perform that cloning process en masse every couple of years — for instance, when buying new systems. By doing so, users all get the same desktop system, which makes them happy because they don’t have to learn something new, and it simplifies information technology support.

When you break it down, cloning is the copying of a master image file onto other computers. You set up one system to be whatever you consider the perfect configuration. Then you make a master image of that system. When you need to add new systems, you use a program such as Norton Ghost to copy that image to the other systems. They become identical to the original system — hence, the clone moniker.

The problem is that almost no two systems are the same. In the lab, we can avoid that problem by buying a bunch of identical systems at the same time. However, we need to buy new systems every year or so, and when we do, the new systems can’t take the old image because they have different drives, video cards and other equipment. Sometimes you will run into different configurations in the same purchase order. A computer manufacturer might use Western Digital or Hitachi drives, and it might mix and match them without letting the buyer know. If the drives are the same size, you might be OK, but sometimes even that bit of difference can mean an image file won’t take.

Of course, making an image file on a Hewlett-Packard desktop PC and then trying to clone it to a Dell computer almost never works. And using a desktop image file for a laptop PC is nearly impossible. Improperly cloned systems often suffer the blue screen of death when critical drivers don’t load or the hardware doesn’t match the drivers. Another common problem is a rolling boot in which a system keeps booting but never gets to a usable state.

Until now, the only solution was to create multiple image files. You could make one for laptop PCs and one for desktop PCs and further divide them, for example, into Lenovo or Acer laptops and HP or Dell desktops. At some point, you could end up with so many image files that the advantages of cloning become lost or at least diminished.

The Universal Imaging Utility Version 4.0 from Big Bang works with many existing cloning software suites to create a single image that can be copied to multiple systems regardless of hardware. We tested it using Norton Ghost as the cloning engine, and although UIU did not eliminate all the legwork involved in the process, it did greatly simplify things, which is much appreciated in a busy lab. Most agency administrators with anything more than a handful of systems to shepherd will quickly see the advantages.

To get going, you launch the UIU discovery tool on every system that is going to become a clone. That requires some work in most cases, along with the time necessary to get the discovery tool in place. However, the utility will then discover all the critical drivers on the target machine and prepare that information for the main UIU program. When you clone your master image, the clone will maintain every driver that it needs to function and not allow any unnecessary or harmful driver to make the transition.

That means you are not getting a true clone on the other end. A user who is accustomed to a certain desktop environment probably won’t notice a difference, but on the back end, you might have drivers that differ from those on the master image. We mention this only because a few agencies require perfect copies of the master image on clones for forensic or security purposes. That won’t happen when using UIU.

What you will get is a functional clone that in our testing worked across several platforms. We were even able to clone a desktop PC to a tablet PC. We were given the choice to keep a lot of the tablet PC functionality or trick the system into thinking that it was still a desktop PC in a new body. Either of those options would be impossible when using just Norton Ghost.

Although cloning from a desktop PC to a tablet PC is not something you will probably want to do often, moving from one desktop to another, or a laptop to a laptop, is a common chore when new systems are purchased. With UIU in place, the master image we created on a Dell XPS desktop PC was successfully replicated to a Lenovo desktop PC. And it didn’t even matter that we went from a single to a dual-core processor or from an nVidia to an ATI graphics card. Although it's not true cloning, the end result was a functional computer that worked just like the master PC did, right down to the individual settings.

UIU won’t eliminate all the work involved in the cloning process, but it will save time by resolving driver and hardware conflicts before one bit of data is transferred. And it will save you even more time because you won’t have to create multiple master image files. For those reasons alone, UIU could become the cloner’s best friend.

Big Bang, 888-446-7898, www.binaryresearch.net/uiu

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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