If you're planning to migrate end users to a new technology, first make sure you've done ample hands-on testing of that technology yourself. That could be the motto of AMD's IT department, some of whose members switched their production desktops over from Windows XP to beta versions of Windows Vista months before Vista launched. Their intent: To make deployment of the final version of Vista to end users as smooth as possible. If you're planning to migrate to Vista, you've likely sought out the experiences and advice of your fellow IT professionals who have been working with prerelease versions of the product. I spoke with two such veterans of Vista beta testing, Jerry Meeker and Michael Winslett, senior managers in AMD's IT Strategy and Architecture organization, who shared their impressions of Vista developed over more than five months of beta testing the product, including their take on Vista's new usability features, Vista's benefits for IT administrators, and minor quirks to watch for when undertaking a Vista deployment.
Q: Describe AMD's testing environment. Do you have a formal process in place for evaluating Vista and communicating about technical issues?
JM: First we had about 100 people using \[beta versions of\] Vista, in a self-hosting environment for five or six months. We communicated informally among ourselves, as we encountered problems or found new versions of things like drivers and third-party software that made our self-hosting more productive and reliable.
A group of in-house consultants developed our initial, supportable image, which is packaged with Vista, Microsoft Office 2007 System and the other components that make the image tailored to AMD's environment—antivirus, VPN, and other add-ons. When we deploy that image, we'll have a SharePoint site that will have a discussion area where people can log \[Vista- and Office 2007–related\] problems and responses and FAQs. We expect the first group of a couple hundred adopters of the supported image to be able to provide us feedback on how the \[products are working\].
Q: Based on your testing experiences, what types of issues do you anticipate users reporting when they first start using the supported Vista and Office 2007 image?
JM: \[We expect users to report issues\] in a couple of different areas: hardware compatibility and third-party add-ons. From my perspective, the Microsoft code itself has been pretty rock solid for a long time. Each beta and release candidate (RCs) Microsoft put out was incrementally better \[than the previous one\], and Office 2007 has been flawless. I don't have any issues at all with the release to manufacturing (RTM) versions.
We deploy Vista only on systems that have AMD Athlon 64 processors or AMD Turion 64 mobile technology in them. Right now, systems with Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs) are somewhat rare, and we expect them to becoming more readily available in 2007. A TPM is required to make the BitLocker \[Vista's built-in drive encryption\] experience more pleasant to the end user. So drive encryption, which is an emerging industry standard for laptops, is a challenge right now because of the state of hardware. I think that will get better in early 2007 with some models that our vendors will bring out.
Drivers are also currently an issue with Vista, for hardware-specific things. For example, I run an Acer Ferrari system that has a little integrated camera in the notebook lid for use for personal videoconferencing. It took a while to get a driver for the video camera and another driver for the Quick Launch keys. But those problems are hardware specific.
And then the other component is the third-party products. For our image to be successful, we have to have antivirus software on it. We happen to be a Symantec shop, and for a long time we were wondering whether Symantec would have RTM code at the time we were ready to release our image. I'm happy to announce that they have. We also use a VPN client, and our VPN client vendor still only has a beta version. In the past we've used a third-party drive-encryption product, and that vendor doesn't plan to release a product that works on Vista until the middle of 2007. So some of the third-party software issues have been a bit of an uphill battle. But if you're talking about delivering a basic system with Office and wireless connectivity, the ability to access SharePoint and email and everything else, \[Vista and Office 2007 are\] rock solid. And the functionality improvements, the Office 2007 UI improvements, are really pretty slick.
Q: From an IT perspective, what are Vista's best features? And what features need a little more work?
MW: I would say that Vista's searching capabilities are among the more compelling features from a productivity perspective. Having an integrated and reasonably fast, powerful search tool is extremely valuable.
JM: Desktop search is a huge improvement in Vista. We're planning on leveraging Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 to index major components of our intranet, so that a user using Desktop Search will be able to find stuff more easily—that's a huge productivity increase. We're looking to deploy Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 functionality to let a Vista user initiate a Web collaboration session with either internal or external users by clicking on an icon on the desktop.
There's also a huge supportability improvement in Vista's new desktop-deployment tools. So, for example, we'll be able to develop deployable images and update images with patches and software enhancements much more easily than we were able to do on Windows XP. We've also tested the feature that lets you re-image an end-user system simply by pressing a function key and initiating a re-image over the network. We're looking at that as one of the methods of deploying our early images. We expect that by early 2007 we're going to be able to provide a zero-touch Vista installation to remote users, which significantly reduces the administrative costs of deploying images.
Q: Why might an IT admin want to delay migrating to Vista, at least for the short term?
MW: I use multiple displays in my work, and I've found that the handling of multiple displays with my particular hardware and the beta display driver that's currently available for Vista isn't as smooth as it was under Windows XP. \[The driver\] has more challenges enabling the second display.
Another thing to consider when you go to Vista is, of course, you'll be getting Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0. And this falls under the area of third-party software compatibility. My team is actually responsible for a third-party Web-based application that currently isn't fully compatible with IE 7. So on my Vista image, I actually run in a virtual machine (VM) XP with IE 6.0 for those occasions when I need to use that application and use some feature that doesn't work with IE 7. \[I've found\] minor things like this... things that aren't quite fully baked yet.
Q: What's your Vista upgrade plan for AMD users in 2007, after the initial deployment?
JM: I think we'll be working out issues and migrating people to Vista at least through the end of 2007. And one decision that we really haven't addressed at the present time \[is upgrading hardware\]: You can either decide to upgrade everybody \[all at once\]—because Vista doesn't run well on some of the legacy platforms at AMD—at a significant cost to the company. Or you can adopt a lifecycle replacement strategy—that is, when your current notebook dies, the new one will have Vista on it, and until your current notebook dies, you'll be running XP. So that \[latter\] strategy means we're going to see a lot of people running down the hallways accidentally dropping their notebooks!
We're going to provide guidelines \[for the hardware upgrade\]. For example, there are several generations of laptops in use at AMD. One of the older generations has only 512MB of memory, and that memory is shared with the video subsystem, so you end up with a box on which Vista may run, but the user experience will be less than desirable. In this case, we'll either say that we don't recommend or we flat out don't support upgrading Vista on that device. So to realize the benefits of Vista, the user will have to get a new notebook. The same goes for some legacy desktop systems. But new systems aren't that expensive these days, so if there's a business justification for taking advantage of Vista and Office 2007 features, getting a new device doesn't require a big cost justification.