Although most companies are still looking out for hidden millennium problems, many are gearing up to roll out projects that were suspended during Y2K preparations. Top of the project list for many network managers is Windows 2000, due for release on 17 February.
Much has been made of the delays to the release of Windows 2000. It was originally earmarked for the end of last year, but in typical fashion Microsoft is trying to argue that the postponements have actually been good for the industry.
Mark Tennant, Windows product marketing manager, said that IT departments had used the time to evaluate the product while other projects were put on hold because of millennium planning.
"It was an ideal time to become familiar with the system," he said.
That was the case at one of Microsoft's major UK customers, the Woolwich Building Society. The Woolwich only had time to 'play' with its Windows 2000 beta code last summer, according to its system architect Dave Ellington. Since October the company has been carrying out a more in-depth evaluation.
Ensuring that staff have the correct skills will also be important in implementing the huge OS. Training companies are expecting something of a bonanza: Microsoft has announced a £3.1 million subsidy for UK training courses as part of its drive to encourage the take-up of Windows 2000.
Much of the initial space on courses will be taken by staff from Microsoft's partners, keen to get to grips with the software before advising customers. But there will be great demand for end-user training and some industry watchers are already predicting a shortfall of Windows 2000 skills.
"There is a big skills initiative around this release," acknowledged Tennant. "People will require training, but subsidised training is available and there are partners ready to help. So although there are many new features, I don't think it will be too daunting."
Quite apart from tackling the new features in the operating system, network managers will also have to tackle the bugs. Last year, Gartner Group analyst Ed Thompson shared his belief that it will be at least the middle of this year before Windows 2000 is in a "reasonably stable" state.
Despite this, Jeremy Sammes, principal analyst at the Butler Group, said it was clear that Microsoft had worked hard to address the major concerns levelled at NT4 over its scalability and resilience in enterprise environments.
"Technologies such as Active Directory and IntelliMirror promise enormous savings in total cost of ownership, but of course we haven't seen them in practice yet," he said. "They promise good benefits, but one also wonders what their effect will be on network traffic, for instance."
A question of cost
Sammes added that network managers will have to consider the pros and cons of Windows 2000 carefully in relation to their own networks. "There are powerful features, but there may also be issues in the short term," he warned.
The delayed release of the system may provide some companies with the chance to evaluate it during a 'quiet' period, but it may also force potential Microsoft customers, who can't afford to wait, onto other platforms, he said.
Cost is another issue that could lead some companies to delay or even reverse implementation plans. A recent study by Gartner Group predicted it could cost up to $2050 (£1281) a head per desktop to migrate from Windows Workstation 4.0 to Windows 2000 Professional. These findings have been echoed by UK users unhappy about the migration costs.
Given these issues, network managers are left with the unenviable task of weighing up the strategic value of Windows 2000 within their existing networks. As yet, there are few signs that major users are leaping in to replace their Unix or mainframe systems. But there are indications that when the technical and financial debate calms down, this could happen.
Lars Linstedt, senior architectural engineer at Microsoft, said: "There has been a significant improvement in the user interface and the underlying features to enhance the way users can access information and take it with them when they travel."
He added that the new connectivity wizard in Windows 2000 Professional reduces the seven or eight screens NT4 users have to go through in order to connect back to their corporate network. Improved power management, standby features and backup have also been added.
On the server side, enhanced remote installation features, together with better change and configuration management, will all help address the issue of total cost of ownership, according to Linstedt.
As yet, however, there is little sense of pent-up demand among the user base for Windows 2000. At the Woolwich Building Society, Dave Ellington said that as yet there is no overriding business imperative to implement the new system.
However, network managers may find that the situation changes as they start to evaluate the new system in more detail. In particular, the perceived benefits of being able to consolidate on a single operating system for almost all business applications, from mobile users to top-end systems, does hold considerable attraction, given that almost 90 per cent of the UK's biggest companies use three or more operating systems. Microsoft hopes Windows 2000 will be the product to bring that figure down.
Getting with the Woolwich: The customer view of Windows 2000
The Woolwich Building Society is already a major user of Windows NT4 and is beta testing Windows 2000.
During Y2K lockdown, which will run till February or March, the Woolwich has been seriously evaluating Windows 2000 and looking for some specific gains, according to Ellington. "We are looking to replace our NT domain structure with Active Directory and generally rationalise our operations in that area," he said. "That will effectively give us better control."
The Woolwich is also hoping to improve its cluster management. "This is one very definite driver for us," said Ellington. At the moment, it takes the Woolwich team almost three days to install Microsoft's server cluster software, and they want to see this change. "It is a tricky beast to install, but Microsoft has assured us this is all addressed in the enterprise version of Windows 2000. This is one thing we will probably implement as soon as we can."
Checklist for making the move to Windows 2000
- Map out existing desktop and server configurations and ensure the existing configuration management approach is well understood.
- Evaluate existing network and systems infrastructure.
- Consolidate backup; be ruthless about policies to back up key data, to reduce the risk of losing data during migration.
- Get a small pilot group going and start setting realistic user expectations.
- Identify potential risks early and ensure any partners have the requisite skills.
- Reduce installation problems by separating hardware and software changes; carry out hardware upgrades now, leaving only software changes when migrating.
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