Count on it. You’re going to encounter damaged systems with any OS. You should have a handful of tools ready for these moments.
This is the greatest method in the world. You need an external USB hard drive or CD drive to create the image, many of which will come with a copy of Ghost. If you don’t have Ghost, go get Partimage and make an image of the entire workstation disk. If you’re in a true workstation environment, you’re likely using NIS, which allows you to keep your users’ personal files in a /home directory on your NIS/NFS server. Make users keep their own stuff in their own home (this is a very, very good policy for Windows workstations too).
Then, if a machine craters, restore the image and they’re right back where they left off. If the hard disk or some other hardware is destroyed, replace it and restore the image. If the whole workstation goes up in smoke, generally you can still get away with using the image on different hardware, though you’ll have to deal with kudzu’s demands for modifying hardware (no sweat) or reconfiguring Xwindows (tricky, but not impossible at all for a sysadmin like you).
Either before or after the fact, you can add a minimal side-by-side installation (not even the same distro) on your workstations. Most distros will allow you simply to add a separate installation to GRUB or LiLO when you set them up. Often a simple command-line installation on a different partition will do the trick.
*Plan for this in advance by setting up an extra partition when you set up the main installation.*
Needless to say, the original installation media is worth far more than its weight in gold when there’s a problem.
Most distros also include a Recovery Disk CD; Fedora, Red Hat, SuSE and many others include these with the downloadable distros. Treat these CDs like they’re diamonds! Practice with one on a non-production machine.
I personally prefer Knoppix as a Live-CD distro (http://www.knoppix.org). It doesn’t change your local filesystem in any way when you start your system from the CD, and it does provide a very comprehensive set of standard Unix tools.
System Rescue CD (http://sysresccd.org) is a terrific and flexible tool. Visit the home page and the tools page for excellent discussion of its capabilities. It’s built with the livecd-ng script, written by Daniel Robbins, which allows you to create your own version of the CD. There’s an option to build a great DVD version, complete with backup files and/or an image of the original operating system on the workstation, including the Partimage tool, which is a Ghost-like program for Linux. Amazingly, this CD is available in both English and French, as well as a version for blind users!
The FIRE distro CD (http://biatchux.dmzs.com) is a not-for-dummies system that’s highly useful, though a little behind the curve in development.
The openSuSE Demo DVD (http://www.novell.com/linux/suse) is great for systems with a DVD drive, and particularly valuable if you’re using a SUSE Enterprise or openSUSE distro on your workstation.
If you’re using a Zip drive you can carry a lot more tools than a floppy, and still access systems that don’t have CD drives. ZipSlack, and variant of Slackware, is the tool of choice here, but you must be comfortable in a console-only (i.e. command-line) environment. You can do some fancy stuff with LoadLin startup to get to the Zip disk, or use a floppy (an image is supplied) to boot. See the booting page for information.
Now you’re at the extreme. If you’ve got a laptop running Linux with no floppy drive (which is becoming more and more common), this is a great way to get it up and running after a system failure, then mount the (hopefully undamaged) hard disk filesystem.
muLinux is an older distro, using a 2.0 kernel, that lets you load add-on floppies after booting.
Tom’s Root/Boot Disk is a flexible system that also lets you build a custom CD if you want a larger, customized system. Check out his wiki for great discussion. Particularly see his list of “Bootable CD Things” for a great list of other CD distros.