Microsoft's Windows 7 is a nimble operating system poised to replace our beloved XP. But after a difficult economic year, many IT shops will be debating when the costly operating system migration makes the most sense.
Why upgrade to Windows 7 now rather than extend the life of XP just a bit longer? Companies have been doing it for years already, avoiding Windows Vista -- and the plague of performance problems, compatibility issues and general user malaise it brought -- in favor of sticking with XP.
But at Westminster College, where I am the CIO, we started planning to move from Windows XP to Windows 7 shortly after its release. The benefits of moving away from the aging operating system and toward a single, reliable platform were enough to push us forward early on.
I'm upgrading to Windows 7 for a number of a reasons:
Microsoft is not going to support Windows XP forever. This goes for both the operating system itself and for security patches. Although Microsoft has pledged to support XP through 2014, the company will no longer actively sell it through retail channels, and will certainly refocus efforts on Windows 7. We want to be prepared.
We'll be able to standardize on one operating system and cut back on our support costs. We're currently supporting both XP and Vista because like many others, we found that there were too many application incompatibilities and too few rewards to risk moving to Vista in any significant way. But we did have to install Vista on roughly half a dozen of our 450 machines to support some business applications incompatible with XP. Supporting both can be resource intensive -- moving from XP to Windows 7 will eliminate the need to hang onto Vista.
Features in Windows 7 help keep us competitive. As a college, it's important to stay at or ahead of the technology curve. Our users -- a mix of staff, faculty and students -- are buying new computers all the time that all are being shipped with Windows 7. Our client base (mainly 17- to 22-year-old students) demands a high level of support. They expect us to stay current, and we make every attempt to do so in a responsible way. Part of this includes utilizing current technologies for better performance and enhanced security. As such, we will be evaluating features including :
- The 64-bit version: Although the 32-bit vs. 64-bit question is still not fully answered, we currently have some users already using 64-bit software, and eventually we'll have all our users on the same base platform.
- Windows 7/Windows Server 2008 R2 DirectAccess: Remote access is becoming more and more important for us. This feature is not available in XP, and it's on our list once we are up and running with Windows 7.
- BitLocker: This enhanced feature is very attractive because we're finally exploring full-drive encryption for our mobile users.
We've found Windows 7 to be more user-friendly than Windows XP, especially once you adjust to some of the changes (the new taskbar alone is a major enhancement I have grown to love!). We ran a pilot project in our business office to determine the feasibility of rollout with minimal- to no user training. In exchange for new computers, they agreed to be our Windows 7 guinea pigs. Because this particular group relies on their systems all day long to perform critical college functions (including using a variety of campus software, such as our very finicky ERP client), success here was especially important.
Two months into the pilot project, we reviewed our help desk tickets and spoke to the users about their experiences. We were pleased to find we had zero support requests related to Windows 7 and users reported they adjusted to the new system without any problems. These encouraging results made it possible for us to continue with our expanded rollout on schedule and as planned.
How we plan to move from XP to Windows 7
The success of our testing (and the support from our software vendors) proved to us that Windows 7 was ready for prime time. We established a migration plan against time frames that would allow us to continue testing as we upgraded, while also working around our academic cycles.
First, we will move our eight-person executive team (currently using Vista) to Windows 7, leveling some of our support needs. At the beginning of the summer we will migrate all our student-used campus computer labs from XP to Windows 7. We've already begun full testing on the two or three computer models to make sure we don't run into unanticipated driver issues; and by the end of the summer, all labs (200 computers) will be upgraded.
The rest of our faculty and staff will be upgraded as part of our hardware refresh cycle. As time permits for both IT and our faculty and staff, we will upgrade reasonably current Windows XP machines to Windows 7, especially for our remote users. With just under 190 faculty and staff (10% of them using Macs and about ten more people already migrated to Windows 7), we're looking at about 150 to 160 desktops to upgrade over time.
Of course nothing is perfect, and we have one possible stumbling block with regard to a full Windows 7 deployment: a virtual desktop deployment. We are currently in the planning phase of this, and we expect it will eventually lower the TCO for our desktop infrastructure. It will also allow all our users to connect to a single desktop image, significantly modifying business processes. Our previous testing has focused solely on Windows XP as the VDI-hosted desktop, however, and we are just now beginning to test Windows 7 under VMware View's VDI solution (stay tuned!).
From both a technical and user-relations standpoint, I don't expect we'll run into any issues with a Windows 7 rollout to our traditional desktop and laptop base. I'm also cautiously optimistic about our VDI-based deployment. Overall, I think Windows 7 for Westminster College is going to be a home run.
Scott Lowe is CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Write to him at; email email@example.com .