The Network Observer: Roll Me Away
Posted Jan 2, 2004

One of the most vexing challenges of contemporary digital technology involves vendor revisions. It seems like no sooner do we get proficient using a given version of software than the vendor wants to sell us an upgrade.

The newer version promises more capability—faster, better, stronger, etc. It's supposed to make my job easier, too. However, too often I discover that my favorite menus have changed or moved. Or there are new steps added to simple tasks.

Unfortunately, if I want to find out for myself if I prefer the new or upgraded version to the older one, I have to install it. If I like it, great, I can keep it. If I want to go back to my old version, what can I do? The upgraded software doesn't allow for that. I could try using Uninstall and then re-install the older version, but that can cause problems too.

Certainly, I don't even want to talk about doing upgrades or trying evaluation software on my production PCs. (Again, who knows if they'll ever work right again?) So although my designers need to give the yea/nay decision on new tools, I have to quarantine any new software on one or two test systems first so as not to screw up the working PCs. Then, at some time, those designers are supposed to come by and try the software.

I know that I can protect production workstations using backups or hard disk imaging software to take snapshots of my system at a given time. I can then restore an "upgraded" workstation back to its original state.

But this involves many steps, not to mention the time it takes to copy gigabytes of data back and forth to and from my image file. Certainly this is not something we do often in a production environment.

In my search for a better solution, I've come across a new type of utility called rollback software. Rollback utilities allow PC administrators to save and restore PC configurations on the fly. You configure the workstation as you want it, then "save" this state using the rollback software. Then, if a user corrupts a piece of software or the workstation OS, she can use the rollback software to call up the previously saved state and get the workstation running again as if nothing had happened. In essence, the PC forgets all about what just happened and goes back to the way it was.

Symantec offers a rollback tool called GoBack, acquired from Roxio, and Dantz' Retrospect is available for Mac users. But I prefer a new product from a company here in Utah called FS Logic. Their rollback tool, Protect, also enables on-the-fly restores, but with a significant difference.

GoBack is PC-focused, which means that if several users on a given PC make changes, all those changes are lost doing a GoBack reversion. FS Logic's Protect, on the other hand, is user-focused, meaning it works like Windows User Profiles. That means that if you want to go back, you can do so only for the logged-in user. Better yet, you can create a new user to test updates and new versions, and still keep the regular user with the current version of the software.

This can be extremely helpful for production studios. With Protect, you log in as an Administrator on a Windows workstation. Install and configure any software you want on the system. Save this as a "baseline," then log in as a specific user on the workstation. Now you can configure your system as you wish, installing whatever software or version upgrades you like. You save your specific user profile in Protect, then log out. If you log in as Administrator, only the generic "baseline" appears. If you log in as that specific user, however, the appropriate upgrades or versions now present themselves.

This all may sound like a typical Windows Profile. The trick here is, unlike Windows Profiles, Protect allows almost total control over the Windows environment down to the system level. Not just adding or removing programs, but reconfiguring Windows system files or installing printers or other hardware. When one user logs out and another user (or the administrator) logs back into that PC, the original baseline configuration is restored—instantly. No reboot. No file copying. Just logging out and back in. That fast.

Say that a video editor wants to sample Premiere Pro. Rather than locating a test PC or risking an existing system with the new install, she can simply create a new user on her "Protect"-ed PC called "Test." User "Test" then logs into the PC with Protect running. She can then install or upgrade to the new Premiere.

Let's say she tries it and decides to stick with the old version. In the old days, she would have to seek out a backup or image file to restore the workstation. With Protect, on the other hand, she simply logs "Test" out and logs back in using her own user profile. The new version of Premiere is gone. Instantly. The system is back to the earlier configuration with the older version of Premiere.

This is really cool technology—probably the most significant innovation in network tools since directory services. Tools like Protect are a major advance for production environments where the time to restore a broken PC costs far more than the cost of the hardware alone.

Imagine the time saved if a user, after falling victim to some catastrophic virus or worm, ends up with a corrupted system. If it happens at crunch time, it's usually a disaster. With Protect, however, it is just seconds until the user can log out and log back in to a working PC with no after effects.

I sure wish I had it when my PC died from a USB device failure. With Protect, I could have had my PC back in two minutes. FS Logic offers a 30-day free trial and sells Protect for around $80 per PC. Visit them at