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Mac Deployment Tools: An Overview of the Best Ways to Roll Out a New Mac Lab or Update an Old One

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New Macs, new versions of Mac OS X, new software, and new school years all translate to one thing for Mac IT staff: determining the best way to roll out the new computers, software, classrooms, or configurations. Ryan Faas gives you an overview of the variety of tools available from Apple and third parties, and tells you how to roll out with less hassle and fewer headaches.
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Deployments are a part of life for IT staff, be they deployments of new workstations, new applications or other configuration changes, or deployments of whole new labs and networks. Those working in education often spend the days before a school year or new college semester readying classrooms and computer labs by doing computer cleanup and updates (essentially, wiping the hard drives of workstations and then deploying a new system configuration onto them). Unfortunately, deployments can either be hassle-free or riddled with headaches without both proper planning and the proper tools. This article focuses on the proper tools for Mac IT staff charged with planning and managing deployments and rollouts.

There are a number of tools and methods that are, by this point, considered tried and true, including the venerable Apple Software Restore in both network and local disk variations (along with several GUI front ends to ease the deployment process), Mac OS X Server’s NetInstall feature, Apple Remote Desktop, and the open source Radmind utility. Also included are workstation management tools such as FileWave and NetOctopus. We’ll look briefly at each option, its methodology, and its pros and cons for various types of deployments.

Apple Software Restore

Apple Software Restore (ASR) has been a tool for Mac administrators and technicians for nearly 20 years. In Mac OS X, ASR is a command-line tool that is part of every Mac OS X release. ASR uses disk images created with the Apple Disk Utility (or a similar tool) as a source of target workstations. It can overwrite an existing disk with a specified image. Because disk images contain a fully configured system (Mac OS X, installed application, system configuration, and so on), ASR allows you to quickly deploy read-to-use workstations. It is not, however, a particularly good tool for applying software updates or rolling out a single or limited amount of applications.

ASR can use a disk image stored on a local disk (such as a hard drive or CD/DVD) as a source for deployments or it can use a disk image that is stored on a server. Being a command-line application, it is possible to initiate ASR operations remotely. However, because the target hard drive or partition will be overwritten as part of the ASR process, workstations need to be started from an alternate Mac OS X boot disk (typically an external hard drive or alternate partition).

To use a disk image as a source for ASR, the image must first be "scanned" with the ASR application. The scanning process optimizes the image for use with ASR and can reorder portions of the image for faster copying. Depending on the size of the image, this process might take some time.

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