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Make Your Boots Shine With PXE
January 24, 2000
By Ron Anderson
The benefits of implementing PXE (a remote boot environment) can be realized by many organizations without much training or additional infrastructure development. Senior technology editor Ron Anderson discusses how PXE can help organizations reduce their TCO for desktops. Read his online column.
If you manage networked microcomputers for a living, chances are that NetPCs haven't made a big difference in your day-to-day in the past few years. You're probably still dealing with PCs that have hard disks and some form of Windows, and you dread each and every OS upgrade that looms over the horizon. What you may not know is that the hype surrounding NetPCs has done you a tremendous favor. These ever-so-manageable products have forced the entrenched PC technology vendors to take a close look at the costs associated with managing PCs in a distributed environment, and has motivated some of them to try to narrow the manageability gap between their products and the new competition.
Several years ago Intel began promoting an open-standards initiative that a large number of hardware and software vendors, including Intel, developed into the Wired for Management (WfM) baseline specification. WfM specifies a range of PC networking technologies including the Desktop Management Interface, remote wake-up or wake-on-LAN, and the Pre-Boot eXecution Environment (PXE). (For more information on WfM, see our recent workshop article, "Inside Intel's 'Wired for Management,'" at http://www.networkcomputing.com/1020/1020ws1.html.)
Based on the blank looks I've gotten from some network administrators during recent conversations about PXE, I'd say this new technology is a well-kept secret. The surreptitious nature of PXE is doubly impressive since most of the new desktop machines with built-in NICs and many of the add-in PCI NICs you're buying today, include PXE support. In fact, PXE support was required for office PC systems as early as the pc98 specification.
Network interface vendors, PC OEMs, disk imaging utility vendors and boot technology vendors have been busy adding value to PXE during the past few years. 3Com, Altiris, Bootix, Insyde, Symantec and, most recently, Microsoft are among the numerous vendors to release products based on PXE. I've included a list of links below to help you explore PXE and the related offerings from various vendors.
Many organizations can reap the benefits of PXE without a big investment in training or additional infrastructure. PXE is a natural fit since it's based on industry-standard Internet protocols--TCP/IP, DHCP and Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP). I've been using PXE in our Real-World Labs® at Syracuse University to deploy Windows 2000 Professional and Office 2000 on our test client machines via Microsoft's Remote Installation, and I'm not sure what to do with all the time I've saved as a result. Maybe I'll work on my golf game.
To implement a PXE boot, you'll need to set up the server infrastructure and activate PXE on the client via the PC's BIOS. Make sure your system's BIOS is the latest available, to ensure compatibility with current PXE specifications. After you enable the PXE boot from your system's BIOS, you'll see a message during the boot cycle telling you to press F12 to boot to PXE. You'll then have 5 seconds to hit the magic key or the boot process will simply continue through its normal progression. After you hit F12 you should see a menu of the available PXE boot options you've configured. These boot options could include anything from installing an OS to scanning the hard disk for viruses, performing a hard disk integrity check, taking workstation inventory or updating drivers.
In our labs, I've set up options to install Windows 2000 to single and multiprocessor systems that support the Advanced Configuration & Power Interface (ACPI) specification and non-ACPI systems with or without Office 2000 preinstalled. The OS installs more quickly than if I were installing it from the CD, and the installation is completely hands-off. I start the Windows 2000 installations on multiple computers simultaneously, and 20 minutes later I'm up and running on all the clients with a fresh reference installation.
There are still some limitations to PXE technology, especially where laptop computers are concerned. Laptops don't yet support PXE boots, though Intel and Insyde are working to address that issue. Also, your ability to deploy PXE throughout your organization may be limited by legacy equipment that doesn't have PXE support. But utilities are available to compensate for that limitation; for example, Microsoft's Remote Installation Service comes with a utility to make a PXE floppy boot disk that will work with most systems that have PCI NICs installed, even if PXE isn't supported natively by the PC or the NIC.
Overall, PXE can help you manage a distributed environment more effectively, so if you need more time for other administrative duties--or more time to work on your golf game--keep it in mind. And let me know how it goes if you decide to use it.
-3Com/Lanwork's Managed Boot Agent:
-Extending PXE to Mobile Platforms:
-Insyde's Mobile Integration Kit:
-Intel's WfM White Paper:
-Microsoft's Remote Installation Services:
-Norton Ghost Enterprise Edition:
-PXE products from Bootix:
Send your comments on this column to Ron Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.