The long haul: One company's migration to Vista

Unisys started planning 17 months ago

No one likes to move. Whether it’s to a new home or a new operating system, a move is fraught with tedious chores and the prospect of facing unknown territory.

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Weston Morris

For many in corporate IT right now, the move that’s looming is the migration to Microsoft Corp.’s Vista operating system. Some are wondering whether the benefits of such a move will outweigh the difficulty. Fortunately, paying attention to your deployment plan can head off confusion, aggravation and unnecessary headaches.

And while coming up with a deployment plan for a full-on operating system migration isn’t a lightweight project, it’s not as difficult as you might think.

Unisys Corp. is in the middle of a 30,000-seat migration to Vista, Office 2007 and Systems Management Server. In the past 15 months, we’ve learned some lessons that may make your migration easier. Depending on your stage of migration, you may find any or all of these lessons helpful. These lessons fall into seven areas:

  • Upgrade justification

  • Migration scope

  • Inventory

  • Remediation testing

  • WIM image construction

  • End-user training

  • Deployment schedule

The task of justifying the Vista upgrade simply means discovering whether a Vista upgrade is appropriate today and passing that information on to the rest of the company. In our case, we are expecting value in four areas:

  1. Support costs.

  2. The quality of support from Microsoft.

  3. End-user device security.

  4. Our ability to leverage what we learn to benefit our customers.

We will realize our goal of reducing support costs by having a single global desktop deployment image. Before Vista, this was not possible because of the requirement to have a localized version of XP for each of our geographies. Having a single global image will reduce our deployment costs, but will also provide savings because the help desk will know exactly what image each user has — because all the images will be the same.

Maintaining current levels of support from Microsoft is very important for us. We knew that this rollout would require some lead time, and we didn’t want to still be running Windows XP anywhere in the company when Microsoft’s support for that operating system ceases. With this plan in place, we expect to have the rollout complete well before then.

Another potentially costly problem is that of end-user security. As our workforce becomes increasingly mobile, the risk of a lost or stolen laptop grows dramatically. Part of the migration payback will come from increased laptop (and desktop) security.

We identified these payoffs early in the process and shared them with senior management as part of the project justification. We continue to re-evaluate the expected benefits at every stage of our deployment. It is important to get senior management on board with specific examples of how Vista’s security and collaboration features can bring ROI — and to back that up with accurate cost figures. My advice is to get midlevel managers on board with Vista’s improved security, better support for individual workflows and far better support for user access control and compliance auditing. Finally, get end users to back the move with specific examples of how Vista and its associated applications can impact and improve their day-to-day work.

Our next task was to define the scope of migration. Early remediation testing, which I’ll come back to in a moment, made it clear that we needed to have several migration plans operating in parallel to reduce the overall migration effort and get the best ROI. Rather than simply migrating to Vista, we put plans in place to update Office 2007, Internet Explorer 7, SMS, VPN and various security applications. Despite the initial feeling that we were opening a can of worms, the truth is that the synergy of the parallel migrations promises a greater return than any individual project would on its own.

Inventory is an essential and yet often overlooked step. It means finding out exactly what’s running in your company — both hardware and software. It also means classifying your end users. Unlike with previous Microsoft operating system migrations, hardware is a real question mark in a Vista upgrade. Deciding for each class of user whether to upgrade their PC’s memory or simply wait until that PC is replaced during its normal hardware life cycle is a big part of your company’s overall rollout schedule. As our deployment plan continues to evolve, we expect the most cost-effective plan will be to migrate the Vista-ready machines first to users who will benefit from it most. For Unisys, that means we are rolling Vista out to about 5,500 customer-facing, marketing and power users first.

Even more than hardware, however, the software inventory is critical to an efficient Vista rollout. Vista’s redesigned security, network and graphics UI mean significant reworking for many third-party applications — especially true for software from smaller software vendors or custom software developed in-house for specific tasks. And, unfortunately, it’s very often those applications that are specifically required to let employees complete critical workflows. Early on, we involved our Software Standards Review Board in the process. It identified 10 core business applications that were incompatible with either Vista or IE7. By working with vendors to get patches or identifying lower-cost replacements, we are down to five incompatible applications. That list will drop to two in a month.

Once your inventory has identified a target Vista application portfolio, it’s time for remediation testing. This simply means that your IT team should build a series of Vista test machines and then run the various applications in the way they’d be deployed in the enterprise. Make this easier on yourself by letting a departmental rep run through the basic workflows for you. It’s better to let a salesperson run through his CRM, Outlook, inventory and billing application workflows than it is to have a system administrator try and guess them. Something that proved very helpful in our case was that Unisys IT set up a Vista lab and invited end users to connect via terminal server and test the installation and operation of each application we use.

But don’t think that software is your sole concern during remediation testing. If you’re going to upgrade existing desktops with new cards and drivers or purchase new machines, then these hardware configurations and their drivers need to be part of the remediation test. Otherwise, you may be in for some surprises on rollout day. Our Vista lab has 15 laptop and eight desktop configurations upon which we test our global Vista deployment image — which leads to the next point.

Once the application portfolios have been determined for each department and passed compatibility testing, the rollout team should be ready to do Windows image (WIM) construction. That means building your WIM files, which are full installations of Vista combined with all your target applications, the group policies in effect for each class of user, all security signatures and virus files and specific operating system settings (like language, for instance). The payoff of the above inventory and remediation testing is that we have a single WIM for our global population of 30,000 desktops. We continue to update this single WIM during each phase of the deployment — using what we learn from our early adopter group and the controlled rollout. The goal is to have a well-tested image for our general rollout at the end of the first quarter.

End-user training could really be started anywhere along this chain of tasks, but we found that it’s best to do it in phases. We are leveraging much of the training that is available directly from Microsoft. In addition, we are heavily using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 portals to allow our early adopter group and controlled rollout citizens to collaborate and share their experience.

Providing “quick start”-style documentation for Vista and each of the important applications will really cut down on help desk calls during the early phases of the rollout, saving the team time and money. We are embedding links to the training directly in the Vista deployment image so that it appears on each user’s desktop automatically. Another good strategy is to identify the power users in each department and make sure they get extra training or receive the early Vista machines — or both — so they can act as a first line of help desk defense when the rest of the company gets upgraded.

Once your team has gotten this far, the deployment schedule will become your rollout blueprint. Deciding whether to roll out Vista to the entire company at once, or whether to do it department by department, site by site or some combination is key. If a chunk of existing machines will need hardware upgrades to become Vista-capable, that needs to be added into the schedule.

Alternatively, if a hardware lease on certain desktops is coming up, leasing their replacements with Vista preinstalled is another popular way of rolling out the operating system and can save manpower hours for your own IT team. However, if you’re application portfolios necessitate custom WIMs, you’ll need to replace the base operating system installation anyway. This makes it a good time to talk to your hardware vendor, however. The major hardware manufacturers all offer custom software installation services that preinstall software on all new machines so they’re ready to plug into your network right out of the box.

Many have been waiting for Vista SP1, and we have included SP1 betas and release candidates in our test cycle. As a result, we are ready to include SP1 in our core deployment plan so we can take advantage of the bug fixes and new drivers.

Once your basic deployment schedule has been determined, map it out down to exact dates, personnel involved with each date and a process for rolling out the new operating system that can be communicated to end users. That should include several warnings, prompts to back up local data to specific network files by certain dates, and then a final warning the evening of the rollout and instructions on how to proceed (first-time log-on, password changes and so on) for the first morning after the rollout. If you follow all these steps, pulling the trigger becomes a simple matter.

Today, Vista still isn’t for everyone. But it’s a safe bet that the platform will become right for Microsoft-centric corporations, within the next 12 to 18 months. But don’t skip your planning process until then. Get started today and save yourself some headaches down the line.

Inventory will provide more detailed information the more time you devote to it. Remediation testing will allow you to find more problems across more detailed workflows and fix them more reliably before end users ever see them. Your purchasing department will have more time to pressure your existing hardware and software vendors to become fully Vista-compatible — or to find alternatives, which may actually wind up working better than your original tool kit, adding more meat to your Vista upgrade justification and making your company’s workflows that much more efficient in the bargain.

For an operating system migration, planning isn’t just necessary; it’s your only shield from a nightmare of sleepless nights, angry help desk calls and missed cost figures. The sooner you get started, the safer you’ll be.

Weston Morris is chief architect for Unisys Microsoft strategic programs.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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