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Use Apple Remote Desktop to Install and Update All Your Macs (Without Leaving Your Desk)

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Deployments and rollouts can be a real hassle for administrators and technical staff because they often involve going to every workstation to install the new software or to change the configuration on each computer. In this second of three articles focusing on the often-overlooked capabilities of Apple Remote Desktop, Ryan Faas shows you how you can leverage Remote Desktop to take some of the pain out of software rollouts and workstation deployments.
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Deployments and rollouts can be sources of big headaches for administrators and technical staff because they can involve going to every workstation, one by one, to install the new software or to change the configuration on each computer. Even if you are using a network-based deployment tool such as NetInstall or Apple Software Restore (ASR), you still typically need to visit each workstation at least once to initiate the install or restore process. Also if you’re doing disk-image based deployment (such as NetInstall or ASR), you need to build the image for each install and test it, hoping to ensure that the install is complete and won’t need updating in the near future (which would require another full-scale deployment or a rollout of updates).

So, how can Apple Remote Desktop help you avoid these headaches? By giving you a wide range of features that allow you to perform the needed tasks remotely. And not just by remote controlling each computer individually and performing the steps on each one as though you had walked over to it. The rollout and deployment tricks that Remote Desktop has up its sleeve can actually be applied to a large number of computers simultaneously. These features include the ability to set the startup disk of the computer(s), install software packages, send sets of Unix commands, and copy files to selected computers.

Network Disk-Image Based Deployment—Started Remotely Over the Network

One of the easiest ways for Mac administrators to deploy new workstations or major overhauls to the configurations of existing workstations is by using network and disk-image based deployment tools. The most prominent examples of these tools are Apple’s NetInstall, which comes as part of Mac OS X Server, and ASR, which comes with all versions of Mac OS X and can be used for network and non-network variations.

Both tools allow the disk image that is used as the source for the workstation to be stored on a file server. In the case of NetInstall, the computer boots directly from the server, using Apple’s NetBoot technology but launches into the Mac OS X installer application and overlays the computer’s local hard drive with the disk image instead of loading the Mac OS X environment. ASR can be initiated after booting the workstation from any valid startup disk other than the one to be overlaid with the image (such as an external hard drive or NetBoot set made available by Mac OS X Server). The command-line ASR tool, or one of the GUI front ends for it, is then pointed to the appropriate disk image (which must be prepped to work with ASR beforehand) and the appropriate hard drive or partition to install onto. (For more information, see my earlier article on ASR.)

Although these deployment methods are often easy to work with and are fairly efficient, they still require you to physically "touch" each workstation. In the case of NetInstall, this process can be as easy as restarting and holding the N key down to initiate NetBoot (provided that the NetInstall set you are using is the default NetBoot volume). With ASR, the process is more cumbersome in that you need to provide an external boot volume and manually run ASR.

By combining two of its management commands, Apple Remote Desktop dramatically simplifies the process for NetInstall or for users of Mike Bombich’s NetRestore (a very nice GUI for ASR that now supports ASR’s extremely efficient multicast functionality). Those two commands are Set Startup Disk and Restart. Set Startup Disk allows you to change the startup disk for the computer to a NetInstall set. As long as the selected NetInstall set is configured to not require user interaction, once restarted, the selected computers will go through the NetInstall (or NetRestore) process automatically. And because these commands can be issued to any number of selected computers, you can start the process with just a few clicks of your mouse from the Remote Desktop administrator computer without ever leaving your desk.

After the install is complete (you’ll have to monitor the NetBoot process of the Mac OS X Server to gauge this), you can re-add the selected computers to Remote Desktop if needed. You might also need to rename the computers, which can be done in bulk using the Rename Computer command. When used for multiple computers, each computer is renamed with the selected name, followed by a number (MacLab1, MacLab2, and so on). This process allows you to verify that the process succeeded and to shut down the computers or perform further configuration.

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