Product review: Decent RapidInstall promises improvements

Everyone wants to make his or her job easier, and software-distribution tools can make one aspect of network administrators' jobs less tedious.

Altiris recently released version 1.0.37 of RapidInstall, a package for distributing software and other system changes across your network. Unfortunately, it does not stand up very well next to its more robust and mature competition, LANOvation PictureTaker Express. However, this initial release of RapidInstall shows promise of becoming a good tool.

One of the toughest jobs facing a system manager is distributing software and configuration changes to all the computers on a network. But with RapidInstall, your staff can install software easily, correctly and affordably, without wasting time by visiting each PC in the company. The savings in time, including fewer second visits by your IT staff, pays for this tool very quickly.

RapidInstall is easy to install. A CD-ROM installs the software and contains the documentation, and a floppy disk provides the serial number. The documentation is short, which is fine because the program is easy to use.

Using the software is as easy as installing it, especially if you are already familiar with change-monitoring software, which all functions similarly: the software walks you through capturing a baseline image of the PC and installing the intended software, then scans the computer to see what has changed, shows you the proposed installation file, and offers you a chance to customise the installation file. Then it creates an installation file to distribute the software among PCs.

Altiris calls its self-installing files RapidInstall Packages (RIPs). Creating a baseline of the PC took just a few minutes; I then used RapidInstall to install MicroPlanet's Gravity and Microsoft Office 97, just as I did with PictureTaker Express. The screen-capture program had changed the registry of my PC, and RapidInstall correctly picked up these changes. The RapidInstall console let me easily remove those changes before I created a RIP.

Creating the RIPs was also quick and easy, as was using them to install the programs on other PCs. Although PictureTaker Express and RapidInstall took about the same amount of time to complete the installations, the files created by RapidInstall were between 30 per cent and 40 per cent larger than those created by PictureTaker Express. This could be a problem if your storage space is limited.

The RapidInstall console gave me limited control over the RIP. RapidInstall let me assign a password to RIP files, preventing unauthorised software installs. I could select the platform I wanted the RIP to install the software on: Windows 95/98, Windows NT, or both. I could also select how the RIP was to treat pre-existing files of the same name.

In addition, I could override all files, only the older files, or only the newer files, which is good when cleaning up software upgrades that made things worse instead of better. I could also change the splash screen that shows when the software is being installed. I could even add a password to the RIP file to restrict access to the application to be installed and control whether to reboot the PC when the new software installation was complete.

However, RapidInstall did not give me the option to create an uninstall package. Although RapidInstall checks to make sure there is enough space to install the software in the RIP, it would not let me test for a selected amount of free disk space before applying changes. This is handy in the case of packages that create large temporary files when they are used -- there might be enough room to install them, but not run them. These were among a number of options that PictureTaker Express offered, but that RapidInstall did not.

Other features overlooked by RapidInstall include the capability of issuing a user-selectable prompt before starting the install and the ability to select each platform individually. Where RapidInstall gave me control over how pre-existing files were to be handled, PictureTaker Express gave me separate controls over files, folders, registry values and registry keys.

A year ago, I would have been delighted by RapidInstall, which is a good program. But it is not as good as its competition. As this review went to press, Altiris changed its pricing structure, offering a technician's licence for $US100 less than a similar licence from LANOvation. Unless the ability to set a password for a release package is crucial, I suggest spending the extra $100 for PictureTaker Express.

RapidInstall is a stable product a half-generation behind PictureTaker Express. This puts pressure on two software companies to improve their software distribution packages. Altiris will want to gain market share, and LANOvation will want to retain it. I can hardly wait to see what great enhancements are included in the next version of both products.

Mike Avery can be reached at mavery@mail.otherwhen.comTHE BOTTOM LINE: GOODRapidInstall 1.0.37Summary: This software installation tool works well, and although it is a bit behind its more robust competition, it has an attractive low starting price.

Business Case: RapidInstall lets you distribute software across your network easily, correctly, and cheaply. The time it saves your staff, who will no long have to visit each PC on your network, will quickly pay for this tool.

Pros

+ Easy and quick software and change distribution+ Sensitive to the operating system on which it is being run, making it impossible to install on the wrong OSCons- Less-effective compression than other software distribution tools- Lacks some helpful optionsCost: $US295 for 25 users; $895 for 100 users; $3495 for 500 users. A technician's licence is also available for $795.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 and laterAltiris Inc, Linden, Utah; http://www.altiris.com

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