Imaging computers may not be the most exhilarating task in IT, but it’s an important one. Knowing how to image a computer — manually or otherwise — is useful for IT admins when tackling certain important tasks. Whether you’re rolling out new hardware, troubleshooting finicky operating systems, or migrating users to Windows 11, this knowledge can make life easier. In this article, we’ll look at some common approaches to computer imaging, key considerations, and best practices to equip you when the time comes.
What is computer imaging, and why is it important?
Computer imaging is the process of creating and capturing an operating system (OS) image from a reference computer before deploying it to another computer or network of computers. PCs installed with an up-to-date corporate Windows image start from the same known, compliant state — without pesky bloatware or major security risks. For IT administrators, this results in more consistent endpoint performance and a more secure environment.
Three ways to image computers
What is the best way to image multiple computers in an organization? Like the answer to most questions worth asking, it depends. It depends on factors like the number of endpoints and hardware models you support, the complexity of your systems, and how much time you have.
To help you figure out what works for your environment, we’ll lay out three common approaches to computer imaging and what to expect.
Imaging a computer manually
Imaging computers manually may allow IT to retain absolute control, but it takes a lot of time. For example, if you’re migrating existing users to a new Windows OS, you might want to separately back up user data before imaging the device.
For each device that needs to be imaged, you’d start by manually installing a fresh version of Windows from bootable media (a fully attended process). Unless it’s an updated OS version, you’d then have to download and install the relevant Windows updates, which could easily take a couple of hours or more. The next step is to download and install all the device drivers and company applications required for that computer. Then, you can move on to configuration tasks like setting up domain join and network mapping. Rinse and repeat for every machine in your fleet.
When to image computers manually
If you’re supporting a small number of endpoints, taking a manual route might be manageable even if you’re a one-person team. If your systems are highly customized, imaging computers manually might give you more control over how each device is set up. On the flip side, it’s a slow and time-consuming process that’s prone to human errors. It also doesn’t scale well when you have more than a handful of computers and hardware models to handle.
Imaging or reimaging — that is the question.
“Imaging computers” and “reimaging computers” are often used interchangeably. If you’re deploying updated Windows images to existing devices, it’s obvious why. But what about brand-new hardware?
Even brand-new computers come preloaded with an operating system that’s installed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). OEM systems usually come with unwanted or noncompliant software that might negatively impact a machine’s performance. To address this, IT can replace an OEM version with a corporate OS image — or reimage the new computer, so to speak.
Imaging a computer with disk cloning software
Another way of imaging computers is to use disk cloning software. Disk cloning software applies sector-based imaging technology to create an exact copy of a computer’s hard disk that is then deployed to another device.
You’d first need to manually set up a physical reference machine with a clean install of Windows, the latest Windows update or updates, the right device drivers, and common line-of-business applications. Once that’s done, the machine needs to be generalized before the system image is captured (via Sysprep, for instance). It’s important to note that the captured image should only be deployed to endpoints that are of identical makes and models to the reference device. After the operating system is deployed, as with manual imaging, configuration tasks such as application installation and domain joining are done manually.
When to image computers with disk cloning software
Using disk cloning software for imaging works best if you support a large number of homogenous endpoints — meaning every computer has identical hardware. It’s also useful if you want to create a backup of your hard drive. For hardware-diverse environments, ideally you would set aside and maintain one physical reference machine for every make and model. And reference machines should not be used for any other purpose. This requires significant space and budget set aside for single-use equipment. Some may also choose to use the same system image for similar device models, trading quality results for time savings and a smaller image library.
Imaging a computer with file-based disk imaging software
In comparison to the other two imaging methods, using file-based disk imaging is a much simpler, faster process. File-based disk imaging software allows you to skip creating and maintaining a physical reference machine — instead, you create a single golden Windows image that contains only the unique files captured from a virtual reference machine. The image file can be deployed to any PC model in your organization, regardless of hardware model. Device drivers, applications, user data, and post-deployment tasks can be separately and easily handled in a modular deployment process.
A modern file-based PC imaging solution like SmartDeploy, for example, simplifies the image deployment process by automating key deployment tasks and enabling true single-image management. The benefits you get include hours saved, hardware independence, and a much leaner image library.
The PC imaging process
1. Create your virtual reference machine (VM)
You can use free virtualization software like Oracle VM VirtualBox and VMware Workstation. Install Windows and all available updates on your VM.
2. Build and capture your golden Windows image
Install core applications or perform any customizations that you want to apply to all endpoints. There’s no need to run Sysprep on the reference VM as this is done automatically during deployment. Capture your image when ready.
3. Download drive packs
Download what you need from more than 1,500 model-specific device driver packages, or Platform Packs, from a central library. SmartDeploy uses WMI queries to deploy the right drivers to the right devices.
4. Automate deployment
Create answer files to automate deployment tasks like setting default Windows settings, migrating user data, and running custom scripts. You can also automate the deployment of individual applications, patches, or tasks.
5. Create deployment media and deploy
Create your deployment media using the Deployment Wizard and deploy to on-site and remote endpoints — via offline media, over a local network, or over the cloud (without VPN).
When to image computers with file-based imaging software
For organizations with different hardware models, file-based computer imaging software offers a more efficient and flexible way of imaging PCs — especially if you’re supporting different device makes and models across different locations. For small IT teams, file-based imaging keeps IT operations nimble and efficient. The ability to streamline and automate the imaging process saves valuable time, improves IT productivity, and reduces business-critical downtime.
Comparison of computer imaging options
Using disk cloning software
Using file-based computer imaging software
Physical reference machines required
End-to-end automated deployments
Suitable for hardware-diverse environments
Yes (*in non-hardware-diverse environments)
Computer imaging best practices
While there are many PC imaging solutions to choose from, keep these best practices in mind when deciding what works best for you.
Simplify image deployment by using virtual reference machines instead of physical ones.
Streamline app deployment by installing core applications into your corporate Windows image.
Streamline your image library by using a file-based imaging solution for single-image management.
With so many day-to-day IT management tasks that take up time and resources, it certainly helps to have tools that get the job done more quickly. Check out our free trial or live demo to see how you can use SmartDeploy’s computer imaging solution to deploy Windows OS images and reimage PCs in minutes.
Joanne has always loved the impact that words can make. When she isn’t typing away in the world of sysadmin, Joanne loves hiking with her husband and dog, true-crime podcasts, and dreaming of her next scuba diving adventure.
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