How to master the NetInstall service

Jeffery Battersby
26 May, 2016
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One of the toughest things you have to tackle in your IT life, beyond the Sisyphean task of keeping everyone you deal with happy, is deploying devices in a way that doesn’t require touching every single computer you’re responsible for. Apple’s NetInstall service, which is one of the features available in Apple’s Server app, offers a simple yet efficient set of tools to help you create and distribute images to every Mac in your environment. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at the NetInstall service, so you can get a leg up on imaging and make it easier for you to deploy Macs in your environment.

As was the case with our Profile Manager Primer a few weeks back, you’re going to need a copy of the Apple’s Server app to set up the NetInstall service, so go and get yourself a copy. It will also be best if you attempt the following exercises on a server that isn’t a production server. What we’ll do here is unlikely to cause any trouble, but it’s never a good idea to do test work on a computer that hosts your business information. So, practise on a test server and, once you’ve completed what we cover of the next few weeks, take what you’ve learned and apply it to your production environment.

The beauty of the NetInstall service is that once you’ve created and tested an image, you can copy it to the proper location on your production server and it will still work.

If you do plan to ignore this advice, make sure you have a good backup before you move ahead.

You’ve been warned.

The broad view

What will we cover over the next several weeks?

  • why you need a deployment tool
  • basic system and network requirements
  • best practices for a deployment service
  • understanding image types:
    • NetInstall
    • NetBoot
    • NetRestore
  • creating NetInstall, NetBoot and NetRestore images
  • creating custom installation images
  • deploying images
  • limiting images to specific devices or MAC addresses, and
  • troubleshooting the NetInstall service.

We will also likely touch on creating workflows using DeployStudio, which adds significant functionality to Apple’s NetInstall service.

Why you need a deployment tool

Been around the computer business for a bit? Then surely you recall the days of the sneakernet, which was a cute way of saying you walked to someone’s desk with a floppy disk in hand to copy a file to their computer so they could work on it. Sneakernet has largely been eliminated, even in home office environments, because of the proliferation of high-speed computer networks but, interestingly, for many IT environments, and particularly for small business environments, the benefit of those networks hasn’t transferred to the installation of operating systems.

While Apple no longer ships installers on DVDs or thumb drives, you may still find yourself downloading an El Capitan installer from the App Store on every computer on which you want to install or update an operating system. Worse yet, you may find that you’re also manually creating administrative accounts, downloading and installing applications, adding computers to your MDM system and binding to domain servers manually on every device you own.

Using a deployment tool can simplify that process, allowing you to create a single image that installs an OS, adds a device to your MDM and automatically adds it to your domain. In addition, if you need to install packages, such as Microsoft Office, Adobe’s Creative Cloud or even the Watchman Monitoring service we talked about last week, you can do that as a part of an image as well.

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