A Smooth Windows Vista Migration <i>Is</i> Possible

Members of Penton Media's IT team give a blow-by-blow account of their successful Windows Vista migration

Executive Summary:

When presented with the task of migrating more than 700 clients in a newly merged company to Windows Vista and the Microsoft Office 2007 product suite, the Penton Media IT team rose to the occasion by following a well-structured migration plan. Members of Penton’s migration team talk about their Windows Vista and Office 2007 migration experiences and offer guidance to other IT pros who may be facing a similar migration challenge.

In the media business, takeovers and mergers occur frequently. One such merger and acquisition, between Penton Media and Prism Business Media, proved an opportunity for a small IT department to migrate the newly united company from Windows XP and Windows 2000 to Windows Vista and the Microsoft Office 2007 product suite. Recently, three of the key Penton IT pros who labored behind the scenes—senior network engineers Brent Mammen and Chris Ripkey and senior network architect Lucas Smith—spoke with several Windows IT Pro editors about their experience migrating the new Penton Media to Vista. Would they have done some things differently? Yes. Are they glad they migrated? Definitely. Did it go perfectly? Of course not—but the good news is, there were no show-stoppers in the migration, either. (The Penton IT team faced additional migration challenges, which included moving the combined company—about half of which was on Lotus Notes—to Exchange Server 2007—and virtualizing some applications. To read more about these challenges, see the sidebar “Parallel Migrations: Exchange Server 2007 and Server Virtualization.”)

Q: What factors drove the move to Vista?

CR: One of the biggest reasons was that we wanted to have a unified platform between the two companies. The old Penton side was on XP for a while. The Prism side had a lot of old hardware and ran Windows 2000 Professional for eight years. A lot of us \[in IT\] had been using Vista \[already\], and we saw that it offered many benefits from the Group Policy standpoint. Finally, XP was going to be sunsetted in a couple years.

BM: Half of the company needed to be migrated to a new email platform, and the other half was undergoing a domain migration as well as a PC refresh cycle. We didn’t want to have to revisit our desktop base a year or two down the road for another upgrade. It also seemed to make sense from a supportability perspective to have the majority of the clients on the same OS.

Q: How did you make the business case for migration to Vista?

CR: When we first thought about deploying Windows Vista and Office 2007, we needed the business to understand the benefits of Vista and Office 2007. To accomplish this, we moved our CTO, Cindi Reding, to Vista and Office 2007. Once on the new platform, Cindi quickly realized the benefits of deploying Vista throughout the company. As far as replacing the hardware, as long as we purchased machines with enough memory and a video card to take advantage of Vista’s Windows Aero interface, the pros definitely outweighed the cons.

Q: How many machines did you migrate from XP to Vista?

BM, LS: Penton has a little over 1,700 managed desktops in its enterprise, and we’ve migrated around 700 machines so far.

CR: There are still some XP machines hanging around because of Office 2007’s lack of compatibility with our Oracle Financials application and the Oracle ADI plug-in for Microsoft Excel. Business managers within Penton use the Oracle ADI plug-in to download financial reports into Excel. The issue as I understand it is that you can’t deploy anything later than Microsoft Office 2003 and use the ADI plug-in.

Q: Did any other application-compatibility problems crop up as a result of the migration?

LS: We’ve done some testing with Vista and Office 2003 and it does work—you can run Office 2003 on Vista.

CR: The former Penton side of the company runs MSG and Advantage, and the SB client for MSG doesn’t support Vista. So for employees that used MSG or Advantage, we moved the applications to a Windows Terminal Server. Act! (the CRM product) was the major gotcha that we’ve had on the Prism side. This was more of an Office migration problem—Act! wouldn’t integrate with the latest version of Office. We have some people actively testing Act 6.0 and Office 2003 on Vista, and they haven’t had any issues at all.

Q: Did you use third-party migration tools?

BM: We didn’t really rely on outside tools. In our case, most of the machines were bare-metal builds. Microsoft utilities such as User State Migration Tool and the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit were very helpful. Our company had used Preboot Execution Environment with Remote Installation Services to deploy PCs in the past, so upgrading to the new Windows Deployment Services (WDS) to push out our Vista Windows Imaging Format images wasn’t a huge stretch for our desktop team.

Q: What steps did you take in migrating?

CR: The first piece that I worked on was building the image, then trying to figure out the applications to put on it. I also worked on getting Microsoft Office Communicator infrastructure set up. One of the major steps that Brent worked on was setting up Microsoft Forefront Client Security. Lucas worked on a lot of back-end server and Group Policy configuration. Brent and I worked a lot on WDS and how to get the images installed on the WDS Server. We had a lot of new products to deploy. We all worked on individual pieces of the puzzle and brought it all together in the desktop image.

LS: From setup to hardcore testing, it was a month and a half to two months getting the image, the servers, and Group Policy set up. Then from there we did our client testing, tweaking Group Policy. We did a little start-out in July; we moved four people, a small site, \[to a new office\].

Q: Then what happened?

CR: Then we did the first pilot group. It didn’t go well. The biggest problem wasn’t something we did—it was because the laptops were back-ordered from Dell due to a shortage of laptop display glass. What we should have done when we found out we didn’t have the new laptops was, we should have picked up and gone home. Instead, basically we still migrated everybody, but half the office was still on their old hardware laptops; they had roaming profiles that weren’t working, which was a result of removing them during the migration. The roaming-profile problem was a disaster—removing them, then trying to reconfigure the laptops, then installing Office 2003 on really old hardware. We spent 30 percent of our time on the new platforms and 70 percent of our time on the old laptops trying to get them to work.

LS: So we reevaluated where the problems were, and everyone agreed that the problems were that we didn’t have laptops, which pushed the migration schedule back. Our next site was Cleveland, and overall that was pretty successful, there were just a few glitches here and there. We rolled out 300 clients in one weekend.

Q: What was the most time-consuming part of the migration?

CR: We had to do a lot of back-end stuff to make it more streamlined. In the move from XP to Vista, the home directory structure has changed—the user shell folders have changed. The complex part was, we went through everyone’s data and moved their home directory data under these Vista-centric folders. Restructuring the users’ personal data into a Vista-centric layout was the most time-consuming task.

When you come to a site, you want to leave it in better shape than before you came there. Our goal was to leave the migrated site in better shape, and cleaning up the data was part of that.

LS: We made choices that made the migration harder in some ways—but also made it cleaner. For example, we could have made the Vista machine run like an XP machine, where it says My Documents and My Music in the local system’s directory structure. We allow our users to run iTunes, but we block \[the music files\] from the server. With Vista, we could direct the music to be on the user’s local drive. It provides a lot of extra benefit to end users, but getting there was painful.

Q: What migration strategies worked for you?

BM: We were under a deadline to upgrade a large number of offices in a short time span. When we arrived at each office, everything had to be sequenced just right. We did things like scheduling employees for a day of offsite training while we upgraded their systems, migrated their email, and moved any local files to their new systems so that they’d be fully functional the next business day. We could always do more testing, piloting, and research before the migration, time permitting. And automated software inventories are always good, but nothing beats sitting down with the end users and actually determining how they use their systems.

CR: You need good documentation and good software and hardware inventory before you start the migration. Some of the best IT departments have the skill sets to adapt on the fly and make changes to their migration projects without causing major problems, which is what helped us during our migration.

LS: One of the big things that made it better for our end users was the training. The Vista learning curve wasn’t that big, but the Office 2007 learning curve was huge.

Q: Did the migration go according to plan, or were there kinks in the process?

BM: Actually, we had more issues with Office 2007 compatibility than we did with Vista. A surprising number of applications interface with the Office Suite, and the jump from Office 2003 to Office 2007 is a big one.

LS: For a successful deployment, you have to do plenty of testing. I wish we’d had more time for testing, but \[because of\] where our company was \[in its migration timeline\], we didn’t have that time. Some of the problems were around Group Policy. For example, we have a lot of home users, and we didn’t have the time to test their different scenarios. This caused slow-logon issues for some of the users because of synchronization problems.

Q: We’ve been hearing readers say they don’t like Vista. How do you feel about Vista?

CR: I wouldn’t go back to anything else. I have an XP machine at home, which I rarely use, because it doesn’t have the things I rely on every day to do my job, like Vista’s integrated search.

BM: In our industry, there’s so much technology that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with it, so when you finally feel comfortable with an OS and how to manage it, it’s only natural to avoid change. But I remember we felt the same way when XP was released. If nothing else, a person could always install Vista, disable the User Account Control (UAC), disable the Windows Aero features, set the desktop to the Classic view, and pretend that they’re still on a six-year-old OS.

Q: Users have had problems getting applications to run on Vista. Is that getting better?

CR: I think it's getting better. One of the things we agreed on was that we were going to give everyone versions of the application that worked with Vista—Vista-certified apps as opposed to trying to make them work on Vista. For example, we have a lot of different versions of Adobe products, so instead of making the four different versions of Adobe Creative Suite work for Vista, we decided to deploy the current Vista-supported version. That helped alleviate a lot of concerns.

When doing a Vista migration, you have to understand that you’re going to have to upgrade some applications to get them to work. Vista uses a different model than XP uses. A lot of applications don’t play along with Vista. That’s where running the Application Compatibility Toolkit comes into play. You know exactly what kind of headaches you’ll have, and that’s when we discovered the Adobe compatibility issues—we knew we’d have to get everyone on the latest versions.

Q: Bottom line?

CR: You need to know your environment. You need to know exactly what you’ve got deployed in your environment today. You can get that information by using Microsoft products and by interviewing people. Once you know that, you should have a clear picture of your migration strategy.  Making the move to Vista shouldn’t be scary. Using the tools that Microsoft has given IT administrators and combining it with knowledge gained from the software and PC audits should make a Vista deployment pretty painless.


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