Windows 8 is officially out in the wild, and some companies are beginning to plan their migration to the new platform. There also happen to be a lot of Windows 7 migrations in the works for the near future. Whichever direction you are in charge of handling, the actual migration process can be quite a pain without a helping hand in the form of intelligent software.
Most technicians have played with some form of imaging software by now. Symantec’s Ghost was the first influential product that fit the bill, with their newfound Ghost Solution Suite taking over a number of years back. I highlighted a free alternative by the name of FOG a few months back, which is targeted towards companies or organizations looking to easily manage their OS imaging and inventory.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with Kyle Haroldsen, current CTO and Managing Director of Intrinsic. He’s got a lot to say about OS deployments, and happens to believe his company’s main product, Swimage, handles migrations better than the competition. In fact, he bills Swimage as one of the few true “zero touch deployment” suites that lives up to its name. A hefty claim to back up, but Kyle says that the technology behind Swimage is worth every cent of its price tag.
We discussed not only the merits of Swimage, but what challenges Windows 8 brings to the table, what experience Intrinsic has in the OS deployment sector, and much more. Below is the full transcript of our conversation which took place originally on November 15, 2012.
Note: Kyle was joined by Intrinsic’s Director of Business Development, Patricia Rodriguez, and her statements were included for the purpose of this interview. Some parts of the interview were edited for clarity and brevity.
Derrick Wlodarz: Can you provide a brief overview of what Intrinsic does and what products you are known for?
Kyle Haroldsen: Our company has been around since 1997, and we specialize in consulting around infrastructure optimization. We go in and help customers be more efficient with their IT processes and get more out of technology. By leveraging technology and changing processes, we can have fewer people doing higher level tasks.
OS migrations started becoming very key to us because it is one of the biggest and most expensive pain points for a company to go through. How do you take an office that is fully embedded in [Windows] XP and move them to Windows 7, which is the current challenge many companies are going through? As we would approach companies and help them with their migration, understanding all of their pains, we ended up producing a product that was originally designed just to help our own consultants with migration consistency.
However, around the 2004 timeframe we turned the concept into a full-fledged product. We’ve been adding and enhancing and maturing that product ever since.
Derrick: And that particular product is Swimage, correct?
Kyle: That, yes, is Swimage. The name is actually an acronym that stands for ‘single worldwide imaging.’ It [Swimage] is designed now for fully automated OS deployment. We have companies that use it for everything from upgrading an OS to building new machine images for particular users. It also handles computers that have viruses that need to be re-imaged and placed back into operation within an hour. You click a few buttons, schedule the deployment, and it just happens automatically – completely rebuilding the machine from the ground up without the need for a technician to visit.
Derrick: From the reading I’ve done on Swimage, it seems to piggyback on suites such as Altiris and SCCM, if I’m not mistaken?
Kyle: It is a standalone product, but it leverages SCCM and Altiris and other system management tools. When we talk about the fact that it leverages [these suites], there are a lot of companies that have investment in SCCM, for example, and they will have SCCM handling inventory, software distribution, etc. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel so to speak, all Swimage does is hook into SCCM and take advantage of its strengths. Swimage then acts as the engine, or brains, for what needs to be deployed and all the related components and processes
Derrick: Does Swimage itself use the WIM image format or does it have a proprietary format? How does it handle pushing out its bits?
Kyle: The standard format is WIM (Windows Image Format). What Swimage does is it take advantage of a layering concept. If you think about how the traditional imaging process was a [Symantec] Ghost imaging process, and now folks have moved over to WIM, the concept is still the same where everyone would try and pack as much as possible into one file. This was done to simplify deployment.
We’ve stripped that apart and instead of having an image that contains all of the components that need to be deployed, it’s more of an intelligent set of instructions that are dynamically applied on every individual computer. A standard image comes down, it determines the hardware type for that system, and pulls the necessary drivers for the unit. Swimage also pinpoints software needed based on the user’s role or where they are located, and whichever other attributes make up a desktop.
Swimage will also automatically backup and migrate your data for you, join the domain, and makes the PC available for the user to the point where they can merely login and have full functionality back when they sit down. That’s the idea.
Derrick: So Swimage is truly a zero-touch product? If a company has, say, 500 systems running XP that need to be moved to Win 8, Swimage can migrate them overnight without a technician needing to lay his/her hands on any single machine?
Derrick: What different migration paths does Swimage support?
Kyle: It can support a vast combination of system paths for now. We support XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and also all of the server operating systems. To go from XP to Windows 8 is the same as going from Windows 7 to Windows 8. Or, you can go 7 to 7 or 8 to 8. It’s a program that is meant to rebuild a system based on a set of instructions, and when you’re going to the same OS, that’s a simple redeployment in a break/fix scenario.
Someone can install malware or do something they shouldn’t have on a given machine, and you can click a couple of buttons, and Swimage will know exactly what to do to rebuild the machine.
Derrick: One of the complains I hear from fellow technicians, in why they don’t like software like Swimage, is the amount of time similar suites take to configure and get operational. How much time does it take to properly implement Swimage for, say, an XP to 8 migration?
Kyle: It certainly depends on the environment and the complexity of the environment. The more complex a scenario, the more time it will take to configure. On average, we find that we can take a business from setup to being ready for final migration in a period of about 4 weeks, and this includes training time on how to do it.
Patricia Rodriguez: Right now, to reimage an encrypted drive where you have to wait for the entire decryption to occur, can take hours. You can actually reimage an encrypted drive without having to decrypt it beforehand, which is quite timesaving. We also have a very elegant solution for dual partitions, which we know used to be a time consuming process before Swimage.
Derrick: How does Swimage handle dual partitions?
Kyle: A lot of companies have created dual partitions to make their imaging process easier. Now, it’s considered an obsolete process. We have means where Swimage can take a dual partition setup and convert it into a single partition for the purpose of zero touch deployment.
Derrick: I saw that drivers are also streamlined into the imaging process based on hardware needs. How does Swimage handle getting all of these drivers correct for a system?
Kyle: It maintains a driver library. You can apply drivers that are assigned as executables, so you can tie application drivers to specific models. What happens after the deployment process is Swimage looks at what is needed for a given system, goes into the driver libraries and pulls just the drivers and potentially application necessary for the specific hardware. They all install automatically.
Derrick: Does that include getting printer instances re-installed Are these installed right after the image is deployed?
Kyle: Yes, both shared printers and local printers will be connected and configured after migration. What Swimage does for local printers is it treats them more like the data that would be on a box, so it extracts the printer driver. You can have 1000 different printers throughout a company, so it takes the existing drivers on a given machine and ports them into the new OS being deployed.
Derrick: What kind of percentage accuracy does Swimage hit during migrations, especially when OS disparity is greater (like an XP to 8 migration, for example?)
Kyle: That is really what differentiates Swimage from any homegrown solution out there or any of our competitors. Because Swimage is an incredibly mature product, we’ve put a lot of rigor into the accuracy. Our goal is truly 100% accuracy. If you create the role correctly, then that role is going to be applied and it is incredibly resilient. Users can do almost anything during the deployment – unplug the machine, plug it back in – and Swimage will continue finish building that box as if nothing happened.
The only times we have failures in our zero touch deployment is when someone failed to pre-plan, or when someone took a machine home for the night. We have a very thorough pre-validation process so even if you missed a step and there is a human error, Swimage will pick that human error up, and ensure that single machine will not deploy if it cannot go through a successful migration.
Derrick: So if Swimage finds that a given machine has critical errors during validation, it’s smart enough to keep the system from actually beginning the deployment process?
Kyle: Yes, exactly.We call it a “dry run” and it goes through every step of the deployment. Every single system goes through this. It takes about two minutes. When you’re doing zero touch deployment, you want 100% accuracy. The amount of effort to recovery fifty failed deployments is unimaginable.
Derrick: What have you seen to be one of the toughest aspects about moving to Windows 8? Are there any pieces to the new OS that you find to be a particular trouble spot?
Kyle: All of the technology is in place to the point where we have the proper checkboxes within Swimage already. For those folks who have been using Swimage, moving up to Windows 8 is an option and much of the core suite has not changed. My advice to our customers moving to Windows 8 has nothing to do with “Can you deploy?” but it’s more of a user’s perspective scenario that will be the biggest challenge. Making sure that users understand how to use it is one of the biggest issues I’m seeing.
Derrick: Along these lines of training, I see that your company offers OS deployment bootcamps?
Kyle: Anyone can come to our bootcamps. It is a paid engagement. Most of the time they are in the Chicago area, but we have gone on the road on occasion and can go anywhere in the country.
Derrick: How often do these camps run? How much do they cost? How long are they?
Kyle: We try to do them quarterly, and they are about $2500 a student. The camp is a week long event. When they leave, students know everything about an OS migration – the processes, the technology, etc.
Derrick: How is Swimage itself controlled? I saw something about a web interface for the product.
Kyle: It’s all through a web interface. The program is scalable from a few hundred machines to thousands of systems. The web interface is used to manage all of the components that make up a desktop build. Your applications, drivers, settings, customization. Pretty much all parts of the deployment are handled in the console. Also, all of the assembly intelligence is also managed in the console. Finally, the scheduling aspect of which systems at what times are inside the web console.
While systems are being deployed, you have a real time dashboard that shows you every single deployment that is happening at the company, with every detailed step-by-step that it’s doing. From the console itself, you can also interact with a computer that is being deployed if necessary.
Derrick: One final question I must ask is how does the pricing model for Swimage look? Is it on a per-seat basis, one time fee – how does it work?
Kyle: It’s on a per-seat basis. The per-seat pricing retail is $35/seat and it goes down based on volume.
Derrick: Are customers entitled to upgrades to new releases?
Kyle: We do have regular releases, with monthly bug fixes, quarterly feature releases and annually we try to do more major enhancements. The folks that purchase Swimage will pay a maintenance fee, which entitles them to the upgrades. This fee is 22% of what they paid for the initial product. This is paid annually.
Derrick: I have a pretty good idea of the benefits of Swimage. Do you have any final advice for technicians interested in the program?
Kyle: We have very large customers who get enormous value from the product, and the key factor here is that you don’t have to send out technicians to handle a zero touch deployment. You don’t see this in the competition, where you can do a true zero touch migration. The cost savings are very large. A typical deployment can cost $200 per system; with our product, it can be less than $50 per system for sure.
Derrick: I have a pretty good idea of the benefits of Swimage. Do you have any final advice for technicians interested in the program?
Patricia: We also have automatic user notifications installed, so we lessen the impact to the end user. Fairfax County government used our product to migrate to Windows 7 this year, and we are already starting a project in November to get them moved over to Windows 8. The FDIC used our process to migrate 40,000 machines to Windows 7 in just six months. And they were only working weekends! Once you get this going, you can do a lot in a very short amount of time. This product gives them an opportunity to do a lot more with less.
Derrick: Are there any places where technicians can go and see how Swimage works before making a purchase?
Kyle: We have some videos and demos out on YouTube. We can also setup demos for people who are interested, and all they have to do is email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get this going for anybody.
Derrick: I want to thank you both very much – this was quite an informative interview, and I hope technicians can take advantage of Swimage to help make their own deployments easier.
Kyle: Thank you!
Have you used Swimage personally? Do you have any thoughts or comments about the program? Feel free to post them in the comments area!
Frequently customers will bring us in to help them plan their Microsoft System Center implementation and use of the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT), because of our experience in maximizing the utility of these products and tools in building world-class infrastructure management solutions. There are times however where they’ve maxed out the efficiency, and are looking for that added value solution that will take them to that nirvana of lowest TCO. That’s where Swimage Encore comes in. So, on the eve of MMS 2011, we’d thought we would share with you some of the positive impacts that come from enhancing your System Center Configuration Manager environment with Swimage Encore.
Swimage Encore takes the solid investment you have made in System Center and gives you a truly turn-key provisioning framework that will span releases and provide immediate and rapid ability to deploy your Microsoft Operating systems in all scenarios. Rather than engineering a solution on top of a platform, leverage SWIMAGE Encore to extend and enhance your infrastructure to provide far deeper scenario coverage and significant technical improvements in the process.
Service Level Impact
As a part of a true Provisioning framework (as a piece of a lifecycle management architecture), Swimage Encore provides workflow coordination for planning, requests and communication via email integration to keep users informed to guarantee not only deployment success, but also customer satisfaction. This is a focus on not only quantitative success but also qualitative success.
With the move toward virtualization of applications and the value proposition of virtual desktops, many organizations are moving toward a data driven and scenario based platform. Swimage Encore when used in conjunction with SCCM can provide many of the same scenarios with a physical Operating System. The joint solution sits at the heart of the Next Generation Desktop, and can drive the organization to leverage OS Provisioning as part of their Dynamic infrastructure.
By empowering your support organization to rapidly deploy not only your current approved operating system but also Windows 7 with no engineering difference, OS provisioning is no longer an impediment to the adoption of new technology. This is the foundation of a move from Basic to Dynamic.
There is no planned improvement to OS deployment in SCCM v.Next. The fundamentals are there, offering opportunities for companion products such as Swimage Encore to leverage the platform to enable a true end-to-end solution.
So there you have it: we love the Microsoft System Center suite, and are pleased to be included in a small group of Microsoft Partners that are delivering funded proof-of-concept and pilot implementations for customers. We look forward to seeing you at MMS, and discussing how Intrinsic can help accelerate your infrastructure optimization plans.