Q: What's the best approach to remotely provisioning our Windows servers? A:\u00a0 Provisioning servers has three automation goals, or layers: 1) Installing the OS; 2) Installing the system software which makes up the server's "personality"; 3) Installing the application code and content.\u00a0 Let's look at the best ways to accomplish these goals.\u00a0Installing the OSTwo approaches for installing the OS exist: 1) disk cloning; and 2) unattended scripted install.\u00a0 For desktop provisioning, disk cloning is the primary approach for installing not just the OS, but also the entire desktop image. For server provisioning however it is used more sparingly for server installations for the following reasons:\u00a01.\u00a0It assumes identical server hardware and identical base network and hardware settings.2.\u00a0Device-driver differences across servers (e.g. storage drivers) lead to creating multiple images.3.\u00a0Servers are updated frequently with security and OS patches and configuration updates, often requiring re-building of OS images.4.\u00a0Fixing SIDs, network settings, service specific users\/passwords and other parameters after the cloning process is a bigger issue on servers versus desktops, due to the higher degree of configuration complexity, as well as unique security and network settings.\u00a0Although disk cloning is slightly faster than unattended scripted installation, it is recommended only for the OS layer of server provisioning where server hardware is similar and only for the base network configuration.Unattended scripted install has the benefit of parameterization of unique server differences, as well as the ability to invoke the vendor recommended system utilities (from Dell, Compaq, etc.) that participate in the unattended install process.Both disk cloning and unattended scripted installs can be performed remotely using a PXE\/DHCP server. OS vendors and most server provisioning vendors (Altiris, BladeLogic, etc.) provide a PXE based solution for provisioning the OS over the network.\u00a0Giving your system some personalityThis involves installing such things as monitoring and backup agents (BMC and Veritas) and middleware\/infrastructure software (such as Exchange, Apache or IIS, etc.)\u00a0 - and\u00a0 should be accomplished using a collection of unattended scripted installs.\u00a0 A master script or XML instruction file calls the individual software packages or scripts in the appropriate sequence, passing server specific environment parameters (hostname, IP, DNS server, etc.) as each step occurs.\u00a0 This layered approach allows server personalities to be easily modified. Plus, the parameters are the only things that need to change when the same layer is installed on another server, which drastically improves efficiency and reduces storage costs.Application code and content layersInstalling these should also be accomplished using a collection of unattended scripted installs.\u00a0 While few companies make investments in standardizing the packaging and deployment of this layer, doing so allows for the automation of the entire server stack provisioning process.\u00a0In summary, for remote server provisioning, there is a trade-off between provisioning the OS via disk cloning versus scripted install. Though disk cloning is faster, it should be used in more homogenous environments.\u00a0 Scripted installs should be used in more complex or diverse environments to allow for flexible, efficient modifications and to reduce storage costs.For the system layers, a scripted install is recommended in most cases. For application updates, a scripted install is recommended 100% of the time, simply because the pace of change at this layer is so high, that disk cloning approach will result in an exploding collection of images.The benefit of provisioning each layer in an automated manner and combining them into a fully automated process will greatly increase IT agility and consistency of server and application builds.\u00a0\u00a0Vijay Manwani is a co-founder and the Chief Technology Officer of BladeLogic, a developer of data center automation software. Manwani is responsible for BladeLogic's overall product strategy and direction. Previously, he led all phases of the company's development efforts which resulted in BladeLogic's current product leadership position. Before BladeLogic, Manwani was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Battery Ventures where he spent the bulk of his time working to launch BladeLogic. Earlier, he was the CTO at Breakaway Solutions where he was responsible for all technology initiatives in the ASP and eBusiness lines of businesses. Prior to Breakaway, Manwani was the CTO and co-founder of Eggrock Partners, an ASP\/eBusiness-consulting firm that was acquired by Breakaway Solutions.