Deploying Windows Vista: Hands On

This training course provides an engaging in-depth insight into the advantages, and pitfalls, of deploying Microsoft's latest operating system.

Microsoft hopes that the first service pack for Windows Vista, released to manufacturing a few days before the start of this course, will provide the impetus for businesses to start deploying its latest operating system in earnest.

Businesses have been slow to adopt Vista to date, but if the delegates on this training course are an accurate yardstick, many companies at least seem keen to evaluate it. There are few ways of learning about Vista other than going to Microsoft itself, but Learning Tree provides one opportunity. It has the advantage that Microsoft provides no input into what it says and what it advises, meaning the company provides a refreshingly honest approach into the benefits — and the pitfalls — of deploying the OS on an enterprise scale.

Deploying Windows Vista: Hands-On is a three-day course aimed at experienced IT managers who are evaluating Vista or planning to roll out the OS in a business environment. A slightly less technical course, Windows Vista Comprehensive Introduction, is available for the less experienced. Learning Tree is likely to modify the Hands-On course later this year, adding content on Windows Server 2008.

At £1,395 for a 3-day course, this is a pricey training course. However, Learning Tree offers discounts of up to 50 percent if delegates, or their employers, commit to buying places on multiple courses.

We reviewed this course at Learning Tree's extensive London education centre, opposite Euston station, although delegates can also choose to study in Edinburgh. The course runs roughly every six weeks at one of the two venues. Learning Tree is one of the largest providers of IT training courses in the UK, with a portfolio of around 150 courses.

Although the tutor argues that most IT professionals are equipped to take the course, a sound knowledge of deploying desktop operating systems is wise. The introductory course could be a more sensible option for less experienced staff.

Topics covered
The different business versions of Vista; Windows PE (preinstallation environment); distribution methods; unattended installations; Windows Imaging Format (WIM); Create the reference computer — including setting up the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK), generating answer files, adding applications; Exporting the master image; Sysprep; Constructing boot media; Deployment to target computers; Licensing issues and Windows Genuine Advantage — Multiple Activation Keys (MAK) and Key Management Service (KMS); Contrasting in-place and clean installations; copying data and settings; updating and maintaining images; LiteTouch and ZeroTouch installations; Business Desktop Deployment (BDD); Windows Deployment Services; Administering the desktop environment; Troubleshooting the target computer; PowerShell scripting language; BitLocker drive encryption.

Training course tutors tend to have a range of both practical experience and 'human' skills, both of which critically affect the amount that delegates learn and retain. Our tutor had both in abundance: he teaches only a handful of courses for Learning Tree, working mainly as a consultant, designing IT infrastructures. He also works part-time for Microsoft, giving him a close insight into the software giant's latest developments.

Our tutor already knew, and imparted, several nuggets of information on Service Pack 1, even though it had not been commercially released. He also gave numerous tips on how to avoid common mistakes ('Don't buy Vista Business if you want drive encryption') and tips to save time ('Here's a shortcut to copy that into the command line').

There is a certain knack — an intangible quality — in making delegates feel they can ask questions, and in this our tutor excelled, eliciting a free and frank exchange of questions, answers and discussion. For someone who is regularly contracted for work by Microsoft, he was also refreshingly honest, pointing out many of the reasons why a business might not deploy Vista.

The setup was well thought-out, too. Two whiteboards were provided so both the present and previous slides could be shown at the same time (how many times have you been caught writing something down from one slide when the presenter clicked over to the next one?). The tutor also had a separate whiteboard unit which he could write on while still facing the delegates.

About 60 percent of the course was taken up with practical exercises that mirrored an actual enterprise deployment. Delegates became highly engaged with these exercises, especially when the tutor broke from the relatively straightforward course notes to ask some challenging questions.

We had one minor quibble with the presenting style, though. The tutor insisted on refering to many items as 'this guy', which was somewhat ambiguous. We'd rather he stuck to meaningful terms like 'image', 'command' or 'filename'.

Quality of supporting materials
This is where we started to feel let down. There is a minimum standard of materials needed for a technical training course, including a copy of the PowerPoint slides used, and Learning Tree met this standard. It also provided a booklet of the hands-on exercises. But there was little else to impress. When we asked what support delegates could expect at the end of the course, we were told that a tutor could be arranged to visit the delegates' workplace — for a fee. Many training companies offer at least limited post-course support free of charge.

Learning environment
We were also disappointed with the wider environment outside of the classroom. Delegates were invited for breakfast before the start of the course, only to find out they were being charged. When asked how he felt at the start of the course, one delegate replied with one word — 'hungry'. And when a runny chicken-and-rice lunch was served in a polystyrene box with plastic cutlery, a few eyebrows were raised. This experience was noticeably inferior to other training companies we have reviewed.

Certification and further opportunities
Because this course is delivered independently of Microsoft, there is only Learning Tree's own certification available. On the other hand, Learning Tree's independence allows its tutors to criticise Microsoft where necessary, and tailor the course around the techniques needed to actually deploy the OS. That, for the majority of delegates, is far more valuable.

In terms of further learning, Learning Tree offers a follow-on three-day course in the PowerShell scripting language.

Shortcomings outside the classroom aside, this course provides real value for businesses contemplating a Vista deployment. Delegates took away an abundance of knowledge, including criticial information on how to avoid problems. As a knowledge-gaining exercise, this course is one of the best we've seen.