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Finding Alternatives to NetRestore

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If you're a Mac system administrator who has relied on NetRestore for mass deployment of software, you're probably reeling from the November 2008 announcement that NetRestore is being deprecated. What will you do now? Ryan Faas examines the possibility of life after NetRestore.

For more than half a decade, Mike Bombich's NetRestore has been one of the favored tools for Mac systems administrators faced with mass deployments of similar machines—in particular, in classroom and academic labs. A free tool, NetRestore was the first true mass-deployment solution for Mac OS X, providing functionality comparable to that of Symantec's popular Ghost and similar tools for Windows deployments. Even with other solutions available over the past few years, NetRestore stayed a favorite for many Mac IT staff and consultants.

Relatively easy for even novice administrators to use, NetRestore offered a GUI front end to the command-line Apple Software Restore functionality in Mac OS X. NetRestore also provided tools for creating disk images from an existing machine that could then be cloned to target machines, options for post-restore actions (such as changing each target machine's network identity), settings for maintaining a PHP database of clients, and the ability to configure the NetBoot service in Mac OS X Server to act as a boot disk for machines that were to be restored. The result was a hit with administrators throughout the Mac world for its ease of use and the ability to automate the deployment process.

In November 2008, however, Bombich posted a notice on his website saying that he had decided to drop future development of NetRestore. While the current—now retired—version is still available and supports Mac OS X Leopard, it's clear that Mac administrators with a deployment solution based around NetRestore will need to start exploring alternative options. The good news is that a number of options are available, operating under both free and commercial licensing.

Apple Software Restore

The first option in a post-NetRestore world is the command-line utility around which NetRestore was based: Apple Software Restore (ASR). A built-in component of Mac OS X, ASR can be run on any Mac or on Mac OS X Server. ASR can be run locally to copy the contents of a disk image (typically one stored on an external hard drive) to a target volume (typically a Mac's internal hard drive or partition). You can also run ASR over a network, using disk images hosted on a file server as the source for the target volume. ASR supports both unicast and multicast access, and you can specify a number of options from the command line on the machine hosting the images as well as when connecting from clients. However, when used remotely for multicast connections, the Mac or server hosting the images must have an appropriate configuration file created to specify the multicast configuration options.

ASR is an effective deployment option (and is the primary option for multicast deployment), but it does present some challenges. An alternate boot disk is needed for clients. This can be a separate partition on the internal hard drive, an external drive, or a NetBoot set hosted by Mac OS X Server. Of course, the ability to create NetBoot sets easily was one of the key advantages to NetRestore. Another challenge is properly configuring the connection between host and client machines. NetRestore also simplified this process dramatically, but viewing appropriate documentation for ASR and its man page can help most technicians or administrators navigate the process. When the process is properly documented, anyone familiar with the UNIX command line should be able to handle this task.

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