Lessons Learned from a Vista Deployment

An ironic fact of life at Windows IT Pro magazine is that we read, edit, and write articles about myriad problems with Windows Vista—and we read, edit, and write those articles virtually problem-free on our Vista desktops and laptops. Windows IT Pro is one of hundreds of magazines and Web sites belonging to Penton Media, which last year was acquired by and merged with Prism Business Media, keeping the Penton name. As part of that process, Prism and Penton employees, some of whom were still on Windows 2000 (including yours truly), were brought into the 21st century via Vista. It was a relatively easy trip for most of us end-users, although we still have some issues with drivers and apps that aren’t compatible.

The View from IT

However, I’m fully aware that IT pros might have an entirely different opinion of Vista. So, to gain some perspective on Vista, I checked in with Penton’s IT team to see what they think about Vista now that they’ve successfully deployed it across our widely dispersed organization of 1800 or so employees. I spoke with Cindi Reding, CTO of Penton Media; Lucas Smith, senior network architect with Penton Media; and Ken Savoy, Infrastructure Services Director with Penton Media.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

“Vista has been fairly stable and one of the best OSs Microsoft has come out with; we felt confident with it,” Penton Media CTO Cindi Reding says. “We did have Office issues. And Oracle wasn’t compatible with Vista. I thought Microsoft might have done a better job getting out there and advocating with other companies and letting them know what’s going on. Or it could be just Oracle—‘we’ll let them suffer for a while.’ We did have to leave a few people on XP until Oracle comes out with a fix.”

Preparation, the team says, was key. “We read up a lot and went to \[Microsoft\] Tech Ed for this reason. One of the big things is getting your deployment fully tested at the get-go,” Lucas Smith says. “We did a lot of app testing. The Software Compatibility Toolkit \[Microsoft Application Compatibility toolkit\] was helpful. We had a lot of old Prism apps--it picked up 95 percent of our software.” However, adds Ken Savoy, it didn’t pick up Microsoft Excel incompatibilities.

“You have got to have some pretty hard core planning,” Cindi says. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, get help. We used Microsoft TechNet, we did a lot of lab testing using the exact equipment \[as used in the real-world deployment\]. Also, one of the other things we found is that you need to have a system in place that’s robust.”

Headaches Happen

Most of the challenges with deployment can’t be blamed on Vista, the team says. “Our headaches have been around Outlook and Office,” Ken says. Lucas adds, “One issue we’re having with Office 2007, when you’re in Excel, you try to highlight, the monitor doesn’t display it. We Googled this and it’s an issue with some monitors.”

Training of end-users is crucial, Cindi says. Penton brought in third-party vendors for training both before and after deployment and had consultants and Penton IT people on-site during the first week afterwards. For admins, the learning curve is not as steep but it’s still there, Ken says: “Normally you can poke around and and find things, but with Vista you’re sometimes asking ‘where did they move this to?’”

App compatibility is an issue. “One of the things we did was we used Terminal Services—it runs just on the server so allows you to run apps on the server,” Cindi says. Another concern is with rights and permissions. “We didn’t have administrator rights on local boxes,” Lucas says. “Microsoft says you can roll out without having local admin rights—you can, but it’s still hard.”

For the first group in Penton to migrate to Vista, the Boulder, Colorado, office, “the problems weren’t based around Vista,” Lucas says. “The majority were hardware. The Dell version of the boxes wasn’t right.” The incorrect hardware was sent back to Dell and the correct hardware obtained, at the expense of some loss of time.

One of Vista’s biggest constraints from an IT view tends to be User Account Control (UAC). “For me, it’s horrible,” Lucas confirms. But Cindi adds that from an end-user perspective, “We really like that \[UAC\] stops people and makes them think about what they’re doing.”

“I would love to see Microsoft do a better job separating things users need from the hard-core OS,” Cindi says. “You want to give end-users some control but not too much. \[Here at Penton\] we’ve opened it up, said ‘we trust you, if you break the machine, we’ll put it together again’—but the second time they break it we lock it down.”

The Bottom Line

The investment of time and money in preparing for Vista deployment can be extensive. That can be hard on IT departments in these lean and mean times. “There’s no compelling reason to go out and do it unless you have to upgrade anyway. If we’d been on decent equipment and on XP, we wouldn’t have switched,” Cindi says.

“When \[organizations moved from\] Win 98 to Win2k, IT staffs were bigger then,” Lucas says. “We had a lot of Win2k clients. It came down to ‘we’ll have some heartache at the beginning but two years from now we won’t.’”

“We had already planned to migrate the Prism side and knew we’d be out there on the leading edge. We decided to just bite the bullet \[and migrate the entire company\]. Now we’re glad we did,” Cindi says. Now the migration has put Penton Media on a path that’s more coordinated with Microsoft. “We are on a four-year cycle—we’ll do a refresh every four years.”

Looking Ahead to SP1

These Penton Media IT team members don’t seem concerned about Vista SP1, aside from commenting about its oddly structured release schedule. “We haven’t rolled out SP1 yet, but we’re testing it at two sites,” Lucas says. “SP1 speeds up file transfers around 30 percent. It seems to make the few things that didn’t work \[in Vista\] work better.”

Lessons Learned

Preparation is key. The Penton IT team laid the groundwork for a successful deployment, right down to the smallest details. Having a robust system is key—it’s hard to migrate when your IT infrastructure is held together with Band-Aids.

And finally, it's also helpful if you have a compelling reason for moving to Vista--a do or die case for making this virtual bungee jump off the technology cliff. In Penton’s case, the merger of two media companies and the urgent need for common technology so we could even communicate and work with each other provided strong motivation to take on this huge task and see it through.

For more information about Penton’s Vista deployment, see two articles by Windows IT Pro’s Karen Forster, who interviewed Penton Media CTO, Cindi Reding about the deployment plans and later interviewed members of Reding’s team: “Vista Now or Later” at http://www.windowsitpro.com/article/articleid/95966/vista-now-or-later-a-real-world-scenario.html and “Vista Deployment in the Trenches” at http://www.windowsitpro.com/Windows/article/articleid/96353/vista-deployment-in-the-trenches.html.

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