DoC becomes XP convert

The Department of Conservation's migration to XP and Windows 2000 began with a "proof of concept" stage - a necessary element of planning before committing to a rollout of such a major migration, says CIO Channa Jayasinha.

The Department of Conservation’s migration to XP and Windows 2000 began with a “proof of concept” stage — a necessary element of planning before committing to a rollout of such a major migration, says CIO Channa Jayasinha (pictured).

Such careful preliminaries ensure as far as possible against surprises, and the involvement of users in proof of concept equips them to spread the message that the new systems work well, he says.

It has taken 10 months for DoC to migrate its 1400 PCs to XP and 60 servers to Windows 2000. According to Jayasinha, the process went almost without a hitch. The desktop environment is much more stable and total cost of ownership figures look to be at least equal, if not less than, those of the previous environment, now that the transition phase has been completed.

Jayasinha also speaks highly of involving a long-term partner — in DoC’s case, Fujitsu — an organisation that can bring to the exercise an experience of similar upgrades but also has accumulated a deep knowledge of the user organisation’s way of operating.

The software and hardware upgrade falls into DoC’s pattern of a three-year upgrade cycle, established in 1999, when Fujitsu came on board. DoC upgrades a third of its PC hardware each year and planned a major software refresh after the first three years.

“We manage our fleet of computers like our fleet of cars,” replacing regularly, he says. “You can’t do otherwise if you want to keep up with the leading edge of technology.”

NT and Office 97 are in any case coming to the end of their fully supported life next year. The inhouse applications development team can see benefits in developing to the .Net architecture, for which XP is the natural environment.

Starting in October last year, the organisation considered three choices: XP for both servers and desktops; Windows 2000 for both, or 2000 for servers and XP on the desktops.

“We were comfortable with the reliability of XP on the desktop, but less sure of it on the servers. Not many people were using it in that environment, so we couldn’t find enough reference sites.” Service pack 1 for the operating system had not yet come out, and this made DoC more wary of entrusting its servers to XP.

“The Linux camp was there,” he says, in the form of other large organisations that have adopted the open source environment. “But in moving from out pre-1999 unstable, unsupported IT platform we made an investment in becoming a Microsoft shop. To change was quite a lot of effort and it took two-and-a-half years to bed down. We don’t want to go through another upheaval like that yet.” DoC is, however keeping an eye on the potential of Linux. “We will test it out.”

XP has turned out to be much more stable than NT, more so than Jayasinha had been expecting. Under NT it took about 45 seconds to log on to the network. “XP does it in about 15 seconds.”

For good XP performance, he emphasises, a PC must have at least 256MB of memory. Many of DoC’s had to be upgraded from 128MB. And low-end Celeron processors are not up to the task, he says. “The 400MHz Pentium runs much faster than the 400MHz Celeron. Higher-speed Celerons are all right, it’s just the low-end ones that will need changing.”

An incidental benefit of the upgrade for staff is that it allows them to “upskill”. DoC ran half-day migration training courses at all of its 140 sites, “offering the staff something in return for their trouble in upgrading”.

XP has better tools for distribution of software upgrades, and this will enable such upgrades to be done virtually “on demand”. They had been on a three- or four-month cycle.

XP also provides better support for peripheral devices like scanners and the iPaq handhelds used by many staff in the field, Jayasinha says.

At present DoC still has a Select Agreement for Windows licensing, expiring on June 30 next year. Then it will have to take on Software Assurance in order to have the right to upgrades. DoC is part of the whole-of-government team negotiating with Microsoft on a Software Assurance deal.

As part of the proof of concept stage, DoC had a pilot implementation with one each of its basic types of setup, a server site, a Citrix site and an “offline” site (one of the remote DoC outposts not permanently linked to the network).

Satisfied with this, the department proceeded to full rollout, between April and August.

The only significant delay to the planned schedule was a two-week extension to the proof-of-concept phase, to get practical feedback from some of the more expert DoC users. These experts have particular ways of using the facilities that might not have been anticipated by the original planners and the Fujitsu engineers doing the upgrade.

There was an “issue” with the lack of XP printer drivers from Hewlett-Packard (the PCs are Compaq) “so we had to use the Microsoft drivers in the interim. They, naturally, weren’t as good,” Jayasinha says.

“If we did it again, we’d allow more time for the applications to be tested more rigorously,” he says. Involving expert end-users meant they could go back to the rest of the staff and assure them that XP works. “There is always some scepticism over a change like this,” he says.

A formal TCO measurement has not yet been made. This will come at the review of the contract with Fujitsu in November.

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