Taking a mulligan on PC setups

System administrators dread new software rollouts. In mid-size to large

agencies and departments, it can take weeks to get a new software product

installed on all the workstations of the users who need it. And unforeseen

conflicts with existing software can easily send even a carefully planned

deployment to the brink of chaos. Enter PictureTaker.

The idea behind LANovation's PictureTaker is simple. True to its name,

it takes snapshots of your PC before and after installing a new software

product, and the differences tell you precisely what changes the new program

has made. There are other software products that watch a program during

installation to see what changes it makes to the system, but PictureTaker

does a more thorough job than other products I've tested.

I installed PictureTaker on a computer running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows

2000. The program immediately launched a wizard that led me through four

simple steps. First, the program took a few minutes to scan my PC to take

a baseline picture. Then it prompted me to install a program, and as a test

I installed the popular WinZip file compression program from WinZip Computing

Inc. Under the wizard's prompting, I saved the baseline picture to a file

and then created a single new file containing a package for installing the

WinZip program onto another computer.

I was delighted to find an editor that allowed me to view the package file

I had created. The editor surprised me by showing that WinZip has a much

more complex installation than I expected, with many changes to the Windows

registry and other system files. This editor can also compare pictures before

and after running a program to see what changes were made to the PC or to

detect where the program stores its settings.

The editor allows you to make changes to installation packages, such

as adding, modifying and deleting registry entries, adding and deleting

files and folders, modifying system files and so forth. I would like to

have been able to drag and drop objects between package files, but otherwise

the editor gave me every option I could think of. Sophisticated users can

create REG files, which are used to make registry modifications on client

PCs independent of any new program installations.

PictureTaker is basically program installation software, and it can

be used with software distribution products such as Microsoft's System Management

Server (SMS), Novell Inc.'s ZENworks and Computer Associates International

Inc.'s Unicenter TNG.

In my case, after installing the client program to my workstation, I

simply placed the update package onto a file server and modified the server

log-in script. As users in the appropriate group logged in, the new program

package automatically installed on their PCs. The operation was transparent,

and the users were not aware the install was being done until the new program's

icon appeared on their desktops.

PictureTaker did not forget mobile users. Another wizard guided me through

a few simple steps that placed the new install package as a download selection

on my Web site. If the client software is not already running on the user's

PC, do not despair. PictureTaker allows you to transform package files into

self- installing executable files.

One of my favorite parts of PictureTaker is the included Conflict Checker.

This program allows the administrator to compare two packages before they

are installed on the client computers to see if there are any conflicts

between them, such as different versions of DLL files or conflicting registry

entries.

PictureTaker is a mature, bug-free product in a competitive industry.

It would be nice to have additional network distribution features, such

as those in InstallShield Software Corp.'s NetInstall. But for overall flexibility

and ease of use with nearly all the options you can think of, PictureTaker

is an excellent choice.

—Greer is a senior network analyst at a large Texas state agency. He can

be reached at Earl.Greer@dhs.state.tx.us.

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