Symantec / Norton Ghost is an interesting and useful tool that can be used in many different ways. It’s relatively inexpensive for what it does.

Most often, administrators use it to create an image of a hard drive that they then replicate quickly onto other machines. It’s simple, really. Ghost takes an image, or snapshot, of the hard drive, complete with all the drivers, programs and settings on the machine. The image file is then saved on to a CD, DVD or external hard drive. Then, using a Ghost CD, or in the old days a floppy, to boot from, the image is copied onto another computer. In large environments in which many computers, with the same hardware configurations, are deployed you can imagine this capability is highly prized since it saves administrators the time of installing all the programs and settings on one computer after another.

Symantec offers a more formidable solution, Ghostcast Server, that is practical for such environments and, for computer labs in which the computer is regularly re-imaged, or ghosted. In Ghostcast server the image resides on a server until it is called for and then it is used to image the machine. Recently, Symantec has bundled this into a product called Ghost Solution Suite that will also handle patching and some other important day-to-day tasks that an admin faces.

For our purposes today, the simple Ghost version is useful. Currently, I’m putting together a testing environment. Because I don’t want to be bothered reinstalling the Windows XP and all the subsequent updates everytime I screw up the computer, I make a ghost image, copying it to a DVD, after each important and time-consuming step, and label as I go.

The first image I’ve created is of the computer with the operating system, all of its current updates, the network driver and an antivirus program installed. Next, I choose the most involved program to install and, once installed, I test that it is working and make another image. Then, I move on. If a program, like MS Office, is easy to install I won’t bother with making an image.

In the end, I might have two or three images of the same computer. I can use these images if I plan on distributing some of the programs that I’m testing into the production environment. If not, I always can use them to quickly return my testing environment to a previous state.