Computers don't last forever. Many enterprises routinely upgrade or replace PCs every two to three years, which means information technology staffs must handle hundreds or thousands of replacements annually. Each replacement involves a certain amount of work for IT, as well as some disruption for users. If you're also upgrading to a new operating system such as Windows 2000, along with newer versions of core applications, then the problems can increase dramatically. IT needs help, and a new class of software tools has emerged to supply it.
If you've ever set up a new PC, you know how tedious a task it can be. You have to install applications that aren't preloaded and then alter their factory-default configurations to match your working environment. You have to back up data, of course, and also desktop settings, Internet favourites or bookmarks, e-mail configurations, dial-up and remote access configurations and more.
This data is located in different places on a PC - some inside program files, some in configuration files and some in the Windows registry - and there's no simple way of making sure you have everything you need or want. If you're also upgrading to a significantly different operating system (say, Windows 9x to Windows NT or 2000) or to newer applications (such as from Office 97 to Office 2000), then the problems are compounded.
The IT department may be charged with setting up a user's machine, but if all it does is install a standard disk image and configure the network settings and e-mail connections, the user may have a lot of work ahead of him until the new system functions as the old one did.
This problem isn't new, but it's become worse as software has become more complex. A major factor is the oft-delayed and much feared migration to Microsoft's Windows 2000 Professional desktop operating system. A new breed of enterprise utilities, called PC migration tools, seeks to automate the manual labour of getting users onto new PCs without having to tediously reconstruct the passwords, user identities, screen settings, IP addresses and documents. Researchers at Gartner Group and International Data Corp say they agree that a smooth migration can knock $200 to $300 off a PC's total cost of ownership.
PC migration isn't just a matter of transplanting PC "personalities". It also requires a quick way to get new operating systems and applications onto systems, or applications onto new hardware. Disk-mirroring or imaging tools - Symantec's Ghost is the de facto standard - are often used to lay down a standard set of applications before the user settings are brought over. But because of compatibility problems, migration tools only support a few mainstream office programs, handling less-popular applications through checklists and scripting languages that can be harder to use.
Users of three well-known migration packages were asked to describe their experiences and informally rate the products for ease of setup and use, reliability, feature sets and performance.
Avoiding a software meltdown
Michael Phillips, supervisor of the computer support team at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California, recalls the way his group used to handle migrations. With the DOS XCOPY command, special scripts initiated backups to network drives. Shrink-wrapped backup software didn't help much because it didn't automate restoration. Each system took up to six hours of a technician's time.
Now, to move about 1000 of the plant's 1500 workstations to Windows 2000 and Office 2000, Phillips has help from Altiris eXpress, a software bundle from Altiris. The bundle includes PC Transplant Pro personality software, a mirroring and configuration tool called RapiDeploy, and RapidInstall, which simplifies upgrades by recording changes on a single machine and then creating special RapidInstall Packages (RIP) that users execute on their own systems.
Phillips says he picked eXpress because it came with the other utilities needed to perform a full migration, rather than requiring third-party mirroring tools. He says he also liked eXpress' ability to randomly reset security identities on cloned NT systems.
So far, Phillips' group has migrated 300 systems, each in a little more than an hour. He says he chose not to use the package's discovery features, preferring to use an existing process of simple utilities and a manual system in which users are responsible for reporting their systems' contents. "We didn't feel [eXpress] would give us all the information that we need," Phillips says.
Settings in Microsoft Outlook had to be changed manually, and there were problems in moving from Microsoft Exchange to Outlook: Calendars were improperly merged, and Phillips says he isn't sure which product is to blame. EXpress also doesn't work with the plant's Unix-based server boot-up utility, but Altiris has promised to fix that in a future release.
Phillips says eXpress' ease of setup and use are good. "It seems like it's been pretty easy to train our people on," he says. Feature richness and reliability are also good, he says, but he rates performance a bit higher, thanks to the fast execution of RIPs. Though Phillips gives eXpress generally good marks, he remains somewhat guarded in his evaluation. "I'd say the verdict is still out on the product," he says.
For Michael Santiago, migration tools don't just reduce labour; they also help smooth out and simplify the entire process. As a network engineer at the Army Space Program Office, Santiago is one of two people who must move a completely mobile, 120-user workforce from older Gateway notebooks with Windows 95 to new Pentium III Gateway 2550s with Windows 2000. Santiago started using Desktop DNA from Miramar Systems last month, migrating users at a rate of six per week.
The old method depended on kludgy backups and could take several hours or days. Further productive time was lost coordinating the work with users' availability to bring systems in for servicing. "We needed to make sure when they got their new laptops it wasn't much of a change for them," Santiago says.
Now, everything runs more tightly. "It'll take about an hour to transfer data to the server and another hour or less to download it back to the new box," he says. "The only monitoring I do is I come back once in a while to see what stages it's in."
Santiago says he considered using Altiris eXpress but decided it was less intuitive than Desktop DNA. "I don't have a whole lot of time," he says. "I was looking for something that was quick and easy and would do what I needed, and this seemed to fit the bill." He says he likes that Desktop DNA lets him run backup and mirroring from the within the same user interface.
Santiago rates Desktop DNA as excellent in ease of use, setup, reliability and performance but rates the features as only "good" because there are too many of them to easily manage. "You'd like to get rid of some screens," he says. "It's not flawless."
He also encountered problems with settings in Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. A Desktop DNA screen that lets administrators migrate programs along with user settings could allow someone to accidentally replace newer applications on the target system. "If you're not careful, you'll overwrite your Office 2000 [Dynamic Link Libraries] with Office 97's," Santiago says.
Santiago acknowledges that such a move would be user error but faults the designers for making the mistake more likely to occur. "What they should do is not have it autoselected at the beginning," he says.
On balance, Santiago says, he likes Desktop DNA and is considering using it for a migration from NT to Windows 2000 that's planned for another user group.
Thane Terrill says he has long wanted a utility to automate migration. As network administrator at the Baha'i International Community in New York, Terrill single-handedly maintains about 20 Windows NT 4 systems for Baha'i staffers, many of whom sit on United Nations committees. An additional 20 Windows NT machines are used by guests and volunteers.
Terrill called utility vendors whose products he was already using, such as Symantec and PowerQuest, asking for migration tools. "They sounded like I was asking about the man on the moon," Terrill says. So he muddled through with Windows Notepad, a printed checklist and a few specialised utilities, including one that carried over bookmarks from Web browsers. He exported Microsoft Outlook files to network drives. "It was really a hit-or-miss thing," he recalls.
Now, Terrill is using Tranxition's Personality Transport Professional 1.0 (PT Pro) to move approximately 20 users from Microsoft Office 97 to Office 2000. He also uses PowerQuest's DriveImage Pro to put a standard application imprint on the PCs, most of which come from Dell.
The process has been cut from two to three hours to one hour, though Terrill must still sit at each machine to run the software and choose items on checklists that determine which data gets temporarily saved on the network. So far, installing the software and extracting settings and applications, moving them to a network drive and then reinserting them has been smooth and painless. Terrill says PT Pro moves about 90 per cent of what he needs, though it has trouble moving Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) settings from Outlook 98. He had upgraded from Outlook 97 to get the IMAP features.
Terrill adds that he would like to have the option of moving cookies, a feature Tranxition left out of Version 1.0 for security reasons. He says more granularity in the checklist would allow the exclusion of sent e-mail from migrations. All three features are promised in the next version, which started beta testing recently. Terrill rates the performance, reliability and setup of PT Pro as excellent and the breadth and depth of features as good, since he had to ask for features to be added in the next version. A Windows 2000 upgrade is inevitable but not imminent; Terrill says he sees few compelling benefits in the newer operating system.
By one estimate, PT Pro could save the US Internal Revenue Service as much as $US29 million in that agency's effort to standardise 130,000 PCs on Windows NT 4 and Office 2000 in 54 locations, in preparation for a later move to Windows 2000. "What we're doing is ensuring that our environment is standardised," says Tom Hoffmann, director of the IRS's end-user computing support division in Dallas. "You need to do that to be able to go to Windows 2000."
According to Hoffmann, some IRS offices had been writing scripts to handle migrations to the 75,000 new systems installed last year as part of a modernisation contract with Computer Sciences Corp. The process previously took more than three hours per machine, but it could fall to 15 to 20 minutes for new systems that already have the applications mirrored on them. The IRS primarily uses Symantec's Ghost for this task, he says.
Though most key tax-related programs run on mainframes, users' standard PC applications are also important. Besides NT 4 and Office 2000, the IRS uses Microsoft Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader and Attachmate's InfoConnect communications software for mainframe access. Hoffmann says it's important to retain certain features such as Web bookmarks and large-type screen fonts for the vision-impaired.
The IRS expects to start using PT Pro soon after testing "to make sure it works as the shrink-wrap says it does", Hoffmann says. "I didn't get the impression that there was anything [we] wanted to do that they couldn't do. The technical people that we have involved are extremely critical. There was not one negative comment about the tool." He says he hopes to finish the migration by the end of June next year.
"We believe this will make us more efficient" by avoiding employee downtime, Hoffmann says. "Before, the user had to start [configuration] all over again."
These aren't the only products available to assist in system migration, but they seem to address more of the many tasks involved than other utilities or tool suites do. It's hard to compare one directly with another because each takes a slightly different approach to what settings it transfers and how it operates. An IT department's choice may well depend on how well a specific tool meshes with the enterprise's environment and way of working.