XP causes a stir at the zoo

Wollemi pines, platypus and 40 other mammals, birds and reptiles have recently enjoyed a boost in their environment at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, and now the human species has had its turn with a revamp of the zoo's information infrastructure.

Like most renovations, the move to Microsoft's recently launched Windows XP, for Taronga Zoo and its sister establishment at Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo, in country NSW, was prompted by external forces -- Microsoft's decision to dump support for the zoo's current operating system, Windows 95, next year.

Despite serious concerns, John Inkson, systems administrator of IT and planning, said the risk involved in moving to XP has been more than worth it.

He said new features in XP, such as remote assistance, roaming desktop profiles and the 'self-healing' aspect of the OS had also saved the department "lots of time".

"It has always been an issue for us that the computers are spread around the zoo; just looking at the amount of time it takes to get around the zoo can mean 30 minutes to walk to some sites. [Since the implementation] there has been less time wasted handling queries, and machines don't fall over as often."

XP has also been a winner with users. Inkson said his team had been overwhelmed by comments from users about how fast it starts up and shuts down. "Some people thought we had given them a new computer."

Apart from support issues, another reason for the zoo upgrade was that Windows 95 was not secure and users could introduce new applications, which meant potential instability for the zoo's systems.

Inkson said the zoo had resisted moving to 2000 and there had been no compelling reason to move to 98.

However, the twin site, which has some 350 users and about 250 PCs, was then offered the chance to participate in a beta trial of Windows XP. "When it was offered to us, I didn't want to do it.

"We set up [XP] in our lab and everything that we tried on it worked, such as a digital camera and a DOS-based payroll system. This package working on XP was a bit of a surprise. We thought it wouldn't work; we had had issues before on Windows 95."

Inkson said that, before the deployment his team had thoroughly tried out XP in the lab, testing all possible applications and peripherals, and looking for integration issues which, considering a lot of the keepers use DOS-based packages for animal management, have not been a problem.

"We had two blue screens in two and half months and nothing that we couldn't recover."

"[During deployment] we had a few little issues along the way. The biggest of the issues was solved in two days by Avanade ( an RDP partner). It would have taken us a month to solve. The problem had to do with our network cards, they weren't Windows 2000 compliant. Now we are using Intel network cards."

The zoo first installed the OS about 10 weeks ago on about a third of their machines in finance, human resources, at Western Plains Zoo and in some animal areas. The solution was initially piloted for three to four weeks in the HR department.

Finance and HR was chosen, Inkson said, because they wanted to roll out in areas that had the "best machines". A total deployment of XP on 250 machines is expected to be completed within six months following RAM updates on some computers and the replacement of about 50, which do not meet XP standards.

Jenny Vasseleu, managing, information technology and planning for the Zoo, said key concerns for the immediate future was the finalisation of the XP rollout and the implementation of several SAP solutions.

She said the zoo is working on moving its payroll system to SAP, as well as installing CRM and plan-and-project maintenance solutions.

Also on the horizon is the installation of Microsoft's Exchange 2000 server -- so instant messaging can be used throughout the zoo -- and an exploration of the capabilities of videoconferencing.