Upgrading to Vista? Proceed with caution

If you're thinking of leading your enterprise into Vista country, adding Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 might make the trip worthwhile

Certainly no coincidence, Microsoft has decked out its much-anticipated OS upgrade with beautiful landscape wallpapers -- vistas, to be exact. But, as calming as these background images may be for end-users getting acquainted with Vista, for IT directors, the landscape approaching an enterprise rollout of any new Windows operating system has always been rocky. Convincing management with compelling ROI, quelling grumpy user rebellions, and making sure the whole thing doesn't blow up in your face are by now well-known impediments along any Windows migration path. It's enough to make IT departments considering the journey downright cautious.

And cautious many are. "The majority of companies, particularly in the medium and large sector, are telling us that it's going to be between one and two years when they actually adopt Windows Vista," says Stephen Minton, an analyst at IDC. According to a recent Equs Group survey, 26 percent of companies plan to migrate to Vista this year, as opposed to 53 percent in 2008 and 16 percent in 2009.

All this reluctance despite the fact that Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make the Vista deployment process as easy on IT administrators as possible -- probably more so than with any previous version of Windows. Yet deploying Vista will still be as big an architectural leap as going from Windows 98 to Windows 2000. As such, expect no shortage of hurdles along the way. Chief among these hurdles, ironically, will be users themselves, as many IT managers already en route to Vista land are finding that their users simply don't want Vista. What they're really after are Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 -- business-critical apps they perceive as essential to getting their work done. So much so that almost any thought of winding your way toward Vista should lend credence to bringing one or both of these platforms along.

The whole hog or not at all?

"It's the Microsoft trifecta," says Mike Connelly, vice president of IT at training and productivity-tool provider FranklinCovey, referring to the confluence of upgrades to Exchange, Office, and Windows. Connelly has already rolled out Exchange 2007 and is currently rolling out Vista and Office as a single package. "Microsoft's marketing has made the combination really compelling to our users. And it's easier all around, since for our users, Vista hasn't been that much of a learning curve. Office is the big jump, so we're trying to give them all the functionality up front."

"Office 2007 is definitely a driver for Vista deployment," says Larry LeSueur, vice president of infrastructure and security at Avanade, an Accenture-owned consultancy that specializes in large Microsoft consulting projects. Avanade currently has 33 Vista rollout projects underway worldwide.

"The ability to create custom and ongoing applications using Vista and Office 2007 is simply too attractive for our customers to ignore," LeSueur says, citing custom business research apps Avanade is helping to create in the oil and gas industry and the health-care sector using Office 2007, Office SharePoint Server 2007, and Exchange 2007.

Page Break

That isn't to say that Vista on its own is an industry dud. It's more that companies deploying the new OS right away are, for the most part, largely dependent on Office. Administrators at these companies simply can't ignore the fact that Vista was released in conjunction with quantum leaps forward in, arguably, Microsoft's other two most popular platforms.

"More so than ever, the operating system is just such a small piece to the user," says Stan Foster, research fellow and Microsoft specialist at Hewlett-Packard's service division, which helps HP customers manage rollouts and provides additional services such as managed desktop outsourcing. "It's the applications that are important to the business people. All these components [Vista, Office 2007, Exchange 2007] have individual benefits, but combined -- that's where the action is."

And though it may not simply be a matter of whole-hog deployment of the Microsoft trifecta or nothing at all, from a planning perspective, it's certainly easier to consider Vista, Office, and Exchange as a holistic combination rather than starting over from scratch each time.

Both Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 offer significant, new, user-facing features that could well influence management buy-in far more than Aero's pretty face. Figuring out the right feature combination means charting the best course to ROI, and that, in turn, is the best path to getting management on board -- a path that requires identifying the combination of these three platforms that will offer the most to your user set and then building your rollout plan around those features.

Fortunately, this is one area where Microsoft has done a considerable amount of work -- especially from an eat-your-own-dog-food perspective. "For us, deploying Vista definitely meant deploying Office 2007 simultaneously," says Ron Markezich, vice president of managed solutions at Microsoft, and formerly the company's CIO. Microsoft at present already has 64,000 Vista desktops deployed and previously had 107,000 Exchange 2007 mailboxes rolled out. Markezich cites the new Windows Imaging capability that's included with Vista as a key driver for the decision to perform both product upgrades at the same time.

"It's just so much easier than with previous imaging packages," says Chad Lewis, Microsoft's Vista deployment product lead. "Remember, we don't just deploy Vista or Office once, like our customers. We've had to deploy several builds of both at regular intervals. The ability to keep our WIM [Windows Imaging Format] file library small and easily tailored has made the whole process just so much easier."

Microsoft has configured its upgrade process to allow certain users to upgrade their own machines at their own pace when going from Windows XP/Office 2003 to Vista/Office 2007. But once on the new platform, Microsoft uses a forced SMS (Systems Management Server) 2003 upgrade process to make sure that users on Vista stay current with new builds. "The nice thing is that we can use the same WIM library for both operations," Lewis says.

Page Break

Gut check: software compatibility

That's a rosy picture Microsoft paints for its own wares, but even with this brace of new deployment tools, Vista's radically redesigned new innards will still have a significant impact on mission-critical line-of-business apps.

"Software remediation is definitely the most important upgrade step across all our customers. It really drives the rest of the rollout process," Avanade's LeSueur says. "Our own internal rollout, for example, ... we're halfway through, but our accounting department will have to come last because one of their critical software applications is going to need more time to become fully Vista-compliant."

Figuring out what's running on the network -- including a full software and hardware portfolio -- will be the most crucial prep step for every enterprise Vista rollout. Fortunately, much of this can be accomplished with existing desktop management tools.

"[Vista has] been a great business driver for us," says Tony Thomas, senior product manager at Numara, the software company behind Track-It, a popular desktop management and asset management platform. "In fact, we're creating a customer Web portal specific to Vista deployments, including the steps you should take, the features we do and don't offer, and the ability to ask questions. We want to help them as much as possible with this process, and our software puts us in a unique position to do that."

In addition to the portal, Thomas says Track-It has received new features specific to the Vista predeployment process. "We've added reports designed specifically to let our customers see what machines are equipped to run Vista and what their overall software portfolio looks like," he says. "The intention for us is to facilitate the planning as much as we can, then facilitate the rollout, and finally give them the tools they need to measure ROI."

And those are the right brush strokes whether you're using Numara's or another system -- but don't expect such systems to do all the work for you. No desktop management system catches everything. A complete software inventory still takes serious staff legwork, which drives up costs. The trick is to keep those costs as low as possible.

A key worry that many InfoWorld readers have expressed in terms of software compatibility rests with desktop anti-virus. With the redesigned Vista kernel, existing Windows XP anti-virus packages won't run on Vista. This situation has folks with hundreds or thousands of anti-virus client licenses concerned about how upgrading will affect their budgets. Fortunately, anti-virus vendors are taking the sensible approach.

"We had no problem with having to purchase additional Symantec licenses," FranklinCovey's Connelly says. "Under our corporate license, this was considered a feature upgrade, and we didn't have to pay anything extra. Symantec got us the code, and we've made it part of our WIM files." Although grateful for Symantec's stance on the redesign, Connelly isn't leaving well enough alone. He's taking the opportunity to evaluate other desktop security platforms, notably Windows Live OneCare -- yet another benefit of an organized software remediation and planning phase.

Page Break

Gut check: hardware performance

"Definitely, a managed desktop resource is a huge help when planning for Vista," HP's Foster says. "But you're still going to need to do some heavy manual lifting. There's no escaping that." And it's with hardware where this lifting will be the heaviest, especially as hardware assessment will be a far more important part of the Vista migration planning process than it has been for the past couple of Windows generations.

When it comes to hardware, Microsoft has been downplaying Vista's requirements. The truth is that the OS is built to take advantage of the latest hardware developments. As such, deploying Vista over older hardware will generate issues. That means surveying the hardware landscape is another critical step -- one that simply cannot be done with software tools alone. And then there's that other thing ...

"It's the testing," Foster continues. Older hardware needs to be tested for optimal performance before a rollout, and that's strictly a manual process. "Hardware that's even a year old may have compatibility or performance problems. Video is the one everyone talks about, but RAM is just as important, as are older versions of things like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth," he says.

Not surprisingly, you'll get the same message from the big hardware vendors. "Sure, you can run Vista on old hardware, but don't. Do it on new hardware, and you'll be better off all around," says Greg Bryant, vice president of the business client group at Intel. That "all around" refers less to features than it does to a perceived ease of deployment when new hardware is involved. By waiting for current hardware lease agreements to run their course, enterprises can reduce the rollout process to simply saving and restoring user data. The new operating system and application portfolio can be handled by the hardware vendor or VAR.

"We're getting a lot of customer interest in that aspect of our service offerings," HP's Foster says. HP's service division can help HP customers with hardware purchasing and post-purchase support, but the division also specializes in custom support as well. Customers can define a desktop software library, and Foster's crew will test for Vista compatibility, build the WIM libraries, maintain them, and even roll out the images, either at HP's site or at the customer's.

"A completely outsourced corporate desktop is becoming one of our more popular service offerings," Foster says. "For many customers, it's just the easiest way."

Page Break

That's a tempting carrot at first blush, providing both an easier implementation and gleaming new hardware. And Intel's Bryant sweetens the deal with the mention of enhanced features. Which, of course, sounds like what a motherboard salesman would say, but when queried on specifics, Intel really does have features to back this up.

"We've specifically optimized our CPU line for both Vista and specific apps in Office," Bryant says. "Take Excel, for example. Our Core 2 Duo is specifically designed to boot the performance of large Excel calculations -- and we're not talking a small number, either. We're talking about 300 percent of improvement of the same calc run on hardware that's only a year old."

Intel has also done serious work on Vista's mobile side. InfoWorld testing has shown that notebooks with last year's embedded Intel graphics chip set -- the most popular mobile graphics system for the "value/business" notebook segment -- don't have the juice to run Aero. Vista's own installation process automatically defaults to the non-Aero view when installed on these systems. Intel knew this would be a problem going forward and beefed up its chip set earlier this year.

"We can't comment on how hardware OEMs implement our chip sets," Bryant says, "but we can say that the integrated graphics line does currently support the full Vista graphics load." This was borne out in a quick impromptu test I conducted on a Gateway M255-E delivered last May running the then-current Intel graphics subsystem. That machine couldn't run Aero. Gateway then sent the same model in November, armed with a Core 2 Duo CPU and a newer Intel Graphics Media Accelerator chip set. That machine is running Aero without difficulty.

"New hardware definitely does make a difference," Bryant says. And he references not just graphics oomph but management muscle as well. New versions of Intel CPUs and chip sets will incorporate features such as out-of-band management, remote updating, advanced hardware diagnostics, and similar goodies. And again, Vista-specific features are included here on Intel's part as well.

"Our Active Management Technology provides these new management and security features," Bryant says. "As far as Vista goes, we've built features specific to the Vista desktop firewall directly into hardware, which means that security is no longer software-only."

Of course, both Foster and Bryant represent hardware manufacturers. Talk to an everyday IT administrator and your answers might be different. "The new hardware's great, but we're not waiting for it," FranklinCovey's Connelly says. "We've tested it, and we think it runs fine in 512MB or 1GB. The WIM tools are good enough that we can do the OS rollout right now and give our users the Office features they want without waiting for new hardware. We can add those advanced features later."

According to Connelly, FranklinCovey's network carries approximately 800 distributed users, placing it on the small end of the enterprise rollout scale. Although the lower desktop count undoubtedly had something to do with Connelly's decision to run his rollout across the existing hardware landscape, this isn't a trend that's relegated to the SMB segment. LeSueur says Avanade's large enterprise customers aren't following the hardware lease rollout plan, either.

"Enterprises are evaluating Vista based on internal TCO, not initial hardware costs," LeSueur says. "With Microsoft's advances in software deployment tools, scheduling the rollout around lease agreements doesn't interest them. Better to focus on software compatibility and mission-critical testing." Just get your users what they need. Hardware purchasing doesn't have to be affected at all.

Page Break

Too much too quickly?

It's the first time in more than a decade that Redmond has released this many product platforms at once.

Microsoft, as you'd expect, is extremely pleased with the current state of its deployment tools, as well as its product release schedule. And make no mistake, consultants such as Avanade's LeSueur and HP's Foster see no downside to a large volume of simultaneous Microsoft platform upgrades, either. That would be termed "bread and butter" to those folks. But IT administrators living without Microsoft consultants aren't quite as happy about having to swallow so much at once.

"It's definitely a concern," Connelly says. "I'm a cautious guy, and typically, I'd be doing the server upgrades first, one at a time, and follow those with the desktop upgrades. But Microsoft releasing three new platforms at once doesn't happen very often. That's put us in a spot, plus we were moving to Microsoft CRM as well." So at the moment, Connelly has separated his server upgrades from his desktop upgrades, but he is forced to roll out several new desktop platforms simultaneously while still testing a new server back end. "So far, it's working fine, but it's definitely a worry."

The cautious perspective to be sure, but that's not to say it can't be done. Justin Ainsworth, senior IT manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing, is in the same boat but is taking the Redmond product blitz in stride.

"We're just taking it one step at a time," Ainsworth says. "Being in the Vista TAP [Technology Adoption Program] program definitely helped. That gave us a lot of early experience that's really paying off now that we're rolling out companywide. Also, you should very closely check out the Business Desktop Deployment [BDD] guide materials. That's very good stuff and definitely worth reading before a rollout."

Overall, the perspectives Connelly and Ainsworth offer are well representative of the current viewpoint IT administrators have on Microsoft's product cornucopia: It's a lot of material, but taking it one step at a time will see them through. Their confidence in and appreciation of Vista's new deployment tools are mirrored in InfoWorld's testing -- as will be demonstrated in an upcoming Test Center review currently in the works.

"This time around, the key is really the planning," Connelly says. And although that's true of any Windows upgrade scenario, this time Microsoft's new deployment tools seem to be making the effort worthwhile.

Making it to the end of any Windows migration journey is arduous and painful. Thankfully, those embarking on this path are not alone. Advice abounds, much of it worthwhile. Everyone we spoke with emphasized that taking careful stock of both the software and hardware landscape should be the critical launching point for any migration to Vista. And rather than worry about budget concerns or hardware purchasing issues, mission-critical business drivers should dictate the schedule of your deployment.

Most important, the act of rolling out the software is all about preparation. Take the time to test Microsoft's deployment tools and become familiar with the deployment guidelines presented in the BBD.

"Yeah, there's a lot of stuff," Sierra Nevada's Ainsworth says. "But we're just taking it at our own pace."

Words to live by.