SmartDeploy: PC Deployment Made Simple

Posted on October 23, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Windows with 21 Comments

SmartDeploy offers a simple and scalable image-based PC deployment solution for organizations of all sizes.

Disclosure: SmartDeploy is sponsoring the First Ring Daily podcast for a three-month period and has purchased a webinar, and the company asked me to write an honest review of its flagship product. But my opinions about SmartDeploy are my own and the company’s sponsorship played no role in this review. I have no qualms—moral or otherwise—recommending this solution to readers of this site. —Paul

PC deployment is arguably among the least glamorous tasks facing both new and established IT departments. And as businesses grow and become more managed, it’s also among the least well-served.

Today, enterprises can take advantage of expensive solutions, such as Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), which are powerful but complex. And smaller organizations—future enterprises—can look forward to a slog of free but complex environments like Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT). If only there were something simpler. Something that could serve both audiences equally well.

SmartDeploy aims to be that solution. Thanks to its simple, user-friendly interface, even the smallest and least experienced of IT departments should be able to get up and running with this tool in an afternoon. And for those with larger and more diverse environments, SmartDeploy scales with you, and offers more advanced tools to meet your evolving needs.

SmartDeploy is also versatile because PC deployment spans many areas: It’s not just about outfitting an employee with a new PC. Some other common scenarios involve getting an employee back up and running when a PC isn’t working properly, and migrating from one Windows version to another. For example, from Windows 7 to Windows 10. But whatever the deployment need, the underlying goals are always the same: speed, consistency, and ease of use.

So I put SmartDeploy to the test.

Getting started with SmartDeploy

Because SmartDeploy can do so much, I figured I’d start small and work my way up. So my first task was to deploy a basic Windows 10 install to a physical PC. This involved creating a virtual machine (VM), capturing an image from this reference machine, and then writing that image to a bootable USB key, and using that to install Windows.

That virtual machine requirement is interesting. If you’re familiar with tools like the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, you know that you typically create reference images from ISO files, and then build and customize images from there, and often via scripting.

I was initially thrown by SmartDeploy’s use of VMs. But using VMs makes plenty of sense: It’s a live Windows environment that can easily be updated as needed, and it can form the basis for any number of reference images—or what SmartDeploy calls reference machines—that can later be expanded with different applications, settings, and PC-specific driver sets. And you can do so without complicated scripting, or by maintaining an ever-growing collection of physical reference PCs.

Using VMs also means you won’t need to learn something new: SmartDeploy works with all popular virtualization platforms—including Microsoft Hyper-V, VMWare ESX/Workstation/Player, and Oracle VirtualBox—so you can simply use whatever tool you’re already using. I chose VirtualBox for no particular reason, though I have lots of experience with Hyper-V as well.

The other nice thing about SmartDeploy is that you don’t need expensive infrastructure, though it can take advantage of it if you do. In fact, you don’t even need a network. All you really need is a PC to work from, a virtualization solution, Windows install media, and a USB key to get started.

Also helping matters is the SmartDeploy console, which is among the simplest IT tools I’ve used. Its default view, Activities, features a list of the activities—Build, Capture, Platform Packs, Answer File, and Media—you’ll need to complete, and in order. You can also access other items, like your reference machine, image, and platform pack libraries, from the options on the left.

Creating a basic install image

So I got to work.

First, I built a reference machine. I could have probably done this directly from VirtualBox, but the Build activity in the SmartDeploy console provides such a friendly, wizard-based front-end that I didn’t see a point in short-circuiting the process. Basically, you name the VM and determine where to place it in your file system, select the install ISO or physical media—I used the former—and then your VM environment fires up so you can install Windows.

This is straightforward and familiar, and it involves running the interactive Windows Setup routine—I used Windows 10 because my target PCs are all Windows 10 PCs—answering the prompts as needed, and basically babysitting it until the process was complete.

Once Windows was installed in the VM, I updated it via Windows Update, but I didn’t worry too much about VM extensions, which are unnecessary, or drivers, which are of course machine specific anyway: As noted, SmartDeploy’s PC-specific driver sets, called platform packs, will take care of this for the physical PCs on which you will be deploying Windows. So I just fully shut down the VM—using the familiar shutdown /s /t 0 command line—and was ready to continue.

(That last bit is important: You want to ensure that there are no pending Windows Updates, especially in Windows 10, where updates can install partially on a reboot or shutdown and then complete installing when the computer boots again. On a few later instances, a SmartDeploy wizard that’s described below actually noted partially completed updates and prompted me to fix that before continuing.)

The next step was capturing the VM, a process that creates a Windows Imaging (WIM) file—e.g. an image file—which should be familiar to those in Microsoft-focused IT shops. This involved choosing Capture from the SmartDeploy console, selecting the VM I had just created, and then the disks within the VM that I wished to include. There are options for inserting a volume licensing (VL) product key for Windows and a local admin account and password that I ignored, since I wasn’t using VL media for testing.

In the next step of this simple wizard, I had to choose between a Standard image, which is used to capture a new image file, or a Differencing image, which creates a differencing image (DWM) file, and can be used to update an existing image. Since this was my first attempt, I chose the former.

After that, I just needed to choose an image name and description, and a save location. And then SmartDeploy created the image file. The entire process took a bit over 30 minutes.

Normally, one would add drivers, other software, and settings to an image before deploying it. And I would do that, later. For this first pass, however, I just wanted to see how SmartDeploy handled a basic, no frills Windows 10 install. So I selected Media from the SmartDeploy console, launching the Media Wizard, which prepares the install media.

As with virtually everything else in SmartDeploy, this wizard is straightforward. You can choose between local network/offline media and cloud-based media types, so I chose the former. Then I chose offline media, since I intended to install via a USB key. From there, I just chose the image file that I had created, and the USB key I wished to use, and SmartDeploy worked its magic. This particular process also took about 30 minutes.

With the install media created, it was go time. The only decision remaining was which PC to use. I have a number of test PCs from which to choose, but two models stood out because they are both business-class laptops that might be deployed in this fashion and because, for whatever reason, I happened to have two of each: Microsoft’s Surface Book and the HP EliteBook x360 1030 G2. I chose the Surface because my level of familiarity with the devices.

And there were no surprises: Windows 10 installed fine, but as I had expected, there were a number of Surface Book-specific drivers that did not install immediately. I knew that these drivers and some other firmware would likely appear over time via Windows Update, but this is no condition in which to deliver a new PC to a user. So it was back to the drawing board.

Adding drivers with platform packs

Microsoft, like other PC makers, makes drivers available for download to end users and IT alike. In the latter case, these drivers can be integrated into install images so that the PC comes up properly configured the first time it boots. I could have found and downloaded the complete driver and firmware set for Surface Book if I wanted to. But thanks to SmartDeploy there was no reason to do that.

Instead, I headed back to the SmartDeploy console and chose Platform Packs from the Activities menu. This unique interface lets you choose between PC models in an ever-growing library of available driver sets, find the PC models you’re going to configure, and then download those drivers so that they can be integrated into your install media. You can think of a platform pack as a ZIP file of sorts that just contains PC model-specific drivers that will later be integrated into your install media.

If you have two different PC types to deploy, for example, you would download the platform packs for each. From there, you could create one installer with both platform packs, so it could be used on either type of PC. Or you could create two installers, each customized for the PC types you have. Thanks to this simple design, the base VM and image file don’t need to be duplicated for each PC in your environment. And you can manage the software—the OS and installed applications—and the drivers separately.

(Many organizations will provide the same PC hardware to different types or groups of employees, who may have different software or configure needs. So you can also differentiate between different installs on the same PC type by creating unique install media for each.)

I was starting off small, so I searched for Microsoft and then selected Surface Book and Windows 10 (x64) from the list of platform packs. (For this PC, Windows 10 x64 is the only supported choice.) Then I clicked Download and downloaded the drivers. You can view downloaded platform packs from the Platform Pack Library option in the SmartDeploy console.

To integrate these Surface Book drivers into my install media, I chose Media from the SmartDeploy activities list again. But this time, I specified the Surface Book platform pack (MicrosoftSurfaceBook-Windows10.ppk) at the appropriate step in the wizard. So the install media I created included both the base OS and the Surface Book drivers and firmware.

This time, the results were far more acceptable. Windows 10 came up as before once Setup was complete, but now Device Manager was clean, and all of the Surface Book drivers were automatically installed. The resulting system, while still relatively bare, was in a minimally acceptable condition to hand to a user.

But of course, the point is to do better than that.

Adding applications and settings

Thinking through what a typical work-allocated laptop might contain, I used SmartDeploy’s tools and VirtualBox to further customize the install, to make it more complete.

For example, you can add applications to the VM so that users can get to work immediately. To test this, I installed Google Chrome and Adobe Reader 11 in a copy of Windows 10 virtual machine. I also made various settings changes, like pinning Chrome to the taskbar. Then I completely shut down the VM and used the SmartDeploy console to capture an image from this VM, as before, and then install media using that image and the correct platform pack. It worked as expected.

SmartDeploy also supports zero-touch deployments via XML-based answer files, which can be used to automate PC deployments so that no one needs to babysit each install and answer prompts. Thus far, I’d done this babysitting for each test install: The PC boots into SmartDeploy’s Deploy Wizard and you answer some basic questions about which image to deploy and so on before it sets about installing  Windows.

But you can use the Answer File wizard in the SmartDeploy console to fully automate this process. Literally, any setting that could be configured by you during the Deploy Wizard can be automated with an answer file. (Automated installs are required when you install over a network.)

So I selected Answer File from the console and stepped through the wizard. An Advanced option provides a number of advanced settings, including the ability to automatically generate PC names based on a customizable scheme. But the basic steps are clear enough: Choose local network/offline deployment or cloud storage depending on how you intend to deploy the resulting image, select the image to deploy, choose whether to recreate the drives from the image (the default on most clean installs) or to wipe and load the drives (which doesn’t actually modifying the existing disk structure on the target PC), optionally enter a Windows product key (again, for VL media only), a full name (which is not the user name), your time zone and language, display settings, network settings, and your domain or workgroup.

OK, it’s a long list, but it’s all very straightforward and familiar. The trick comes at the end: After you choose a location to save the answer file, you’re prompted to choose an attended or unattended deployment type. The attended type means that you or another IT pro will need to babysit the install. Unattended means that they will not. So I chose Unattended for a fully automated deployment.

(You need to authenticate a user to do this. If you’re not on a domain, you need to enter the username in the form of local\username.)

From there, I ran the Media Wizard again, selecting an offline deployment media type, and the correct image file and deployment pack. In the Optional Components step, I selected the answer file I had just created, chose the USB key I wanted to use, and completed the wizard.

Once the media was created, I used that to boot the Surface Book. This time, there was just a warning—with a 30-second countdown—that the PC was about to be imaged. And then the install proceeded without any intervention.

There’s so much more

I’ve only touched the surface here, as SmartDeploy has many advanced capabilities I wasn’t able to explore. But you can create your own platform packs, for example, or edit existing packs. You can deploy over a network instead of using USB storage as well. And SmartDeploy is an also interesting choice for those plotting a Windows 7 to Windows 10 migration, as you can retain your users’ data while paving over the PCs with the new Windows version.

Upgrading from one version of Windows 10 to another version is, of course, a less complex issue, but it’s one I did experiment with: You can simply upgrade a VM in-place to the latest version—I did so after making a copy—and then capture it as a new image. That way, future clean installs will simply be on the newest version of Windows 10 immediately.

If you’re interested in evaluating this product, SmartDeploy has a special offer for the entire Thurrott.com readers. They are giving away 15 licenses with one year of support—a $665 value—to the entire audience: Check out www.smartdeploy.com/thurrott for more information. There’s literally no gotcha here, beyond needing to be a new SmartDeploy customer.

I recommend giving it a shot: I’m really impressed by how well SmartDeploy works, and I found myself experimenting with different configurations just to see what would happen as the result of small changes. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that any IT tool can be fun, for sure. But SmartDeploy comes about as close as I think is possible. If your job involves deploying PCs to users, you owe it to yourself to take a look.

Join the discussion!

BECOME A THURROTT MEMBER:

Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Register
Comments (23)

23 responses to “SmartDeploy: PC Deployment Made Simple”

  1. Avatar

    BMcDonald

    Paul,


    Awesome review. I am right in the middle of evaluating some deployment options. Currently Desktop Central and MDT are doing fine - but you are right - there are always ways to simplify.


    Q: In your testing - were there any options to execute scripts etc on a new build so when the user gets it - the machine has things like crappy MS apps removed, privacy settings locked down, start menu in place and so on?


    One of the real gems within MDT is that the deployment is really only limited by your imagination when it comes to scripting etc. Yes - MDT can be complex but there are no solutions out there that have this kind of flexibility.


    And thank you so much for the special offer. The 15 machine count is perfect for my little operation. Am looking forward to getting signed up.


    Cheers!


    Bruce

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      In reply to BMcDonald:

      So I did play around with whether you could do things like update Store apps, replace app defaults (Chrome vs. Edge, etc.) in the VM, capture the image, and then deploy that, and the problem is that Windows 10 reverts those on first boot/logon. But that is admittedly an unsophisticated approach.


      I didn't test a script-based way of doing what you're asking, but I bet it would work: You can add scripts to any stage of deployment (before or after the image is applied, first boot, first logon, etc.) in the Answer File wizard. I bet this will work for what you're trying to do.

    • Avatar

      SpencerDunford

      In reply to BMcDonald:

      Spencer from SmartDeploy here. These customizations are supported and we can help you through it. I assume you want to customize and deploy Windows 10, not 7 and the process is pretty different between the two (but we can do both). And depending on the scope of what you want done, some are best to do on the image side, other modifications work better using Group Policy.


      I started a discussion over in the forum if anyone has comments or questions. You can also reach us at [email protected].

      • Avatar

        BMcDonald

        In reply to SpencerDunford:

        Spencer,


        Thanks for the update. And yes - I am working exclusively with Windows 10. But it is important to note that my office is not big enough for AD group policy yet. I do use local group policy but I find that it is very easy to fire out 50 registry changes by inserting a script into my MDT task sequence and have my settings in place at first logon.


        For me to make a move to Smart Deploy - there would need to be some flexibility in getting the Windows 10 install the way I want it when one of my users logs in for the first time. I have no desire to mess around on the desktop after the fact.


        And what's this about not allowing Outlook.com emails for the trial signup? I was planning on using mine - as my role is to oversee about 10 machines for a very small home based business.


        Hoping we can still sign up.


        Cheers!


        Bruce

        • Avatar

          SpencerDunford

          In reply to BMcDonald:

          Gotcha, not a problem, we'll help you with the Win 10 customizations offline. Please email [email protected] with the @outlook email address that you want to use. We'll unblock it and you can register like normal.


          Sorry for the extra hassle, it is just that 99.9% of our customer base is businesses with an IT department and 50+ Windows devices to manage. Not allowing the free-email addresses has cut down on some users that may only have one or two machines where SmartDeploy would be overkill. You'd be better off with that limited number of machines manually setting them up.

      • Avatar

        jimchamplin

        In reply to SpencerDunford:

        Spencer, Hi.


        I'm not in any sort of shop. I'm the de facto IT guy for me and my friend/business partner in a fledgeling media production... thing.


        We're not a company. We don't even have a website. But this is something we can use. Any way I can get a way around the block on @outlook.com emails?

  2. Avatar

    Gedisoft

    Hi, probably a stupid (licence) question, but at our company we have only 1 type of laptop (and 2 image profiles: DEV and helpdesk). This image is deployed to about 5 laptops/ month. Does this mean that we have to purchase 5 licences/month for using the software? (and with a minumum purchase limit f 50 devices this seems rather expensive compared to f.e. a ghost image....or am I missing something here?

    Greetz

    Geert

    • Avatar

      pesos

      In reply to Gedisoft:


      SmartDeploy appears to be overkill for your environment. With your scale and level of standardization you should be just fine with WDS.


      SmartDeploy shines when you have lots of different hardware configs, odd/old drivers, and/or older operating systems that won't have the level of built in driver support win10 does.

      • Avatar

        SpencerDunford

        In reply to pesos:

        Great points! I’d say WDS and MDT are as great as you set them up to be. Not having a licensing cost for MDT is attractive for sure and if you have a spare Windows Server machine then adding WDS as a role doesn’t cost you anything ether, also a nice bonus. This is usually important for MSPs that really need to watch their margins and manage expenses. SmartDeploy does integrate with WDS for PXE so that’s handy if you like to use both systems together. I’d say give the SmartDeploy 15 free licenses a shot and see how much time or effort it saves you to determine what the value is for your scenario.

    • Avatar

      SpencerDunford

      In reply to Gedisoft:

      Hi, Spencer from SmartDeploy here. Each machine would need a separate license, however, once it is licensed you can reimage it as many times as you’d like. Additionally, if a computer is decommissioned, you can take that SmartDeploy license and reassign it to the replacement laptop. With the special offer, you’ll receive licenses to cover 15 machines for free and basic support for a year. The basic support will give you unlimited access to our Platform Packs so that you would only need your two golden images that could be deployed to any laptop type. For example, when a new model is released for the laptops you purchase, you can still use the golden images you created before and simply download the new platform pack for that model. Hope this helps. If you have questions, just send an email to [email protected]. We look forward to having you give SmartDeploy a try! 

      • Avatar

        Gedisoft

        In reply to SpencerDunford:

        Thnx for the reply....So I have to have a licence for every device I put an image on, not for the device I start with ?

        Allthough you product looks very nice (my collegue, who looked at it on my request, called it MDT on steroïds) , but I/we miss the "extra" value for us: we only put the initial image once on a new machine, so for us I think that our current "ghost" image solution is cheaper.

        • Avatar

          SpencerDunford

          In reply to Gedisoft:

          Yes, you have a license for 15 unique devices to reimage them as many times as you want.


          MDT on steroids – love it! So, my guess based on what you’re saying is that you’re more of an MSP and we do have a separate license structure for companies who reimage a machine, ship it out, and never see it again. Per-use, term license rather than a perpetual license that makes more sense for most MSPs. My team would be happy to talk further about those options. Give us a call 888-7DEPLOY or email [email protected] and we’ll get you some more info to see if it can save you time / money and increase your service revenue overall. In any case, happy to work the best we can with your budget, we'd love to have you part of our growing customer base!

  3. Avatar

    edboyhan

    Thanks, for this -- very clear, and fits in well with my background of using MDT. Two questions: I'm not sure how the licensing works, when you say 15 machines? If I use SmD to create a bootable image on a USB stick, I would assume I could use that stick to boot on any number of machines? What is the 15 machine limitation specifically?

    Also, in my shop I have maybe 15-20 machines (I haven't counted recently :-) ), but they are mostly all different models. Can I create an install media that contains multiple platform packs spanning all the different models that I have? Or how would that work in practice?

    Great post -- should be very handy.

  4. Avatar

    jimchamplin

    Unfortunately, I'm unable to take advantage of this offer because "one-use or free email" is not permitted.


    Whatever actual use cases I might have - even if I wanted to pay them - Since I don't work for someone else doing IT work, I need not apply.


    Whatever.

    • Avatar

      SpencerDunford

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      Spencer from SmartDeploy here, sure thing, happy to whitelist your email address so you can claim your free licenses. Please send it to [email protected] and reference this conversation. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our website about ideal scenarios where SmartDeploy works well. We typically find that it becomes useful/necessary for companies who are managing at least 50 computers OR reimaging computers monthly or quarterly. Curious to learn if your need falls within this or perhaps presents another scenario where our solution could be useful. We appreciate your interest and look forward to working with you!

  5. Avatar

    mikiem

    Sounds worth the price of admission for small biz -- sure you could do it all manually, but that extra time spent could [should] be used making your biz $.


    That said, on the cheap you can install 10 + software on a V/Box VM, using a .vhd rather than the V/Box native .vdi. Shut down the VM, attach the .vhd in your Windows host, do a disk image backup, restore wherever you want to deploy. Optionally while you have the VM running, add boot files for both Legacy & UEFI. *Most* of the time 10 should ID & supply needed drivers on 1st boot.

    • Avatar

      SpencerDunford

      In reply to mikiem:

      Spencer from SmartDeploy here. All this sounds good, we love VMs and use them every chance we can across all vendors. Just a heads up that SmartDeploy will automatically deploy UEFI or BIOS machines for you. Also, on the drivers, we use the customized versions that come from the OEM, not the generic ones that ship with Windows. Usually the PnP ID's will be longer on the customized ones and win out, getting deployed during our patented boot-time driver injection process. Worth noting these are all the drivers needed for the machine to work (audio, video, chipset, bluetooth, hotkey, etc...) and can even flash the BIOS for you as part of deployment. You get to focus on making your custom images with the software you like and we'll make sure it works perfectly on any business class device that you support.


      I know this is a little in the weeds, but we get excited about deployment! Give Paul's offer a shot and let us know what you think!

  6. Avatar

    chrisrut

    Interesting - I'll pass this on to my Desktop Support Admin who does most of the installs these days.

    I daresay, the hard part of using the MS tools is knowing what's important and what's not. The most important choices are buried among (the far more numerous) obscure bits, creating a forest of confusion if you don't work with it routinely. You have to know how all the pieces hook together - the interface is in your head... And therein, I think, lies the real value of this system: it appears usable by those who don't use MDT every day... which, BTW, is most IT shops.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Avatar

    brettscoast

    Good post Paul


    An extremely useful tool for the IT Pro's arsenal. The steps/processes involved all seem quite clear and easy to follow. If this cuts down on the amount of time spent on clean install or upgrading windows versions I'm all for it. Smart by name smart by nature.

Leave a Reply