Early admission for Vista?

I just finished reading Will your PC keep pace with Vista? and began to wonder how many Education IT people have begun to think about their migration plans for Vista.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

I just finished reading Will your PC keep pace with Vista? and began to wonder how many Education IT people have begun to think about their migration plans for Vista.

Turnover of IT employees in a university environment is such that many who currently support Windows XP on their campus may never have gone through an OS migration in their student labs. The five-year gap since Windows XP was introduced, while a welcome relief for those of us who have been around for awhile, is truly a double-edged sword when it comes to OS migration planning.

From an end-user support standpoint, if your school's IT department has not yet begun beta testing Vista, you should get onboard as soon as possible.

While your IT department will set its own schedule for rolling out Vista, your academic departments and their faculty will not wait for you. Education budgets being what they are, you won't see many retail OS migrations right away but you will see new machines running Vista on your campus almost immediately after its release and, since Microsoft is in the habit of discontinuing sales of the old OS as soon as possible after the release of the new one, more likely than not your IT department will start to get requests for Vista support long before you roll it out in your student labs.

In an earlier blog I pointed out that a three-year lifecycle is ideal. Well, here's where the chickens come home to roost -- if your school still has five-year old PCs in its student labs then the day that Windows Vista ships (whenever that may be) you are at least two years away from being able to upgrade to Windows Vista.

This assumes that you want to upgrade all of the workstations in your student labs to Windows Vista at once. If your IT infrastructure is de-centralized, this might not be necessary -- permitting your departments to roll-out Vista as they have the opportunity to upgrade hardware. However, if your school's IT department operates a large number of student computing labs, you probably want a uniform 'build' across all of your workstations. This means, at the very least, you will want to wait a year from the release of Vista to roll out Vista to your student labs -- if for no other reason than to avoid changing your student computing environment in the middle of an academic year. But, can you wait much longer than that and still meet your students' needs or your faculties' expectations? Probably not.

Why would you have to wait all? Insufficient hardware. From my experience, hardware and software advances at such a pace that any workstation will make it through no more than one or maybe two OS upgrades before it is simply too slow to reliably run the latest OS. For example, Windows XP is supposed to be able to run on a Pentium II - 300MHz workstation with 64MB of RAM. It will run -- but very poorly, even w/128MB RAM. The practical lower limit for Windows XP is a Pentium III - 800MHz or better and 256MB of RAM.

So far, all Microsoft is saying about Vista is that it will need 512MB of RAM (and a 'modern' processor) to run -- but most reviewers are predicting more like 1GB of RAM for 'acceptable' performance. Even then, without a high-performance graphics card, many of the features of Vista will not be available. Thus, I do not expect my circa 2000 Dell (Pentium III - 866MHz, 512MB) to run Windows Vista well -- and neither should you.

Until you are ready to rollout Vista in your student labs, what do you do with those brand new workstations with Vista pre-installed? Simple. You deploy your Windows XP 'build' on them. More likely than not, the transition of your XP 'build' to the new hardware will be straightforward, if not completely seamless -- and it insures that your students have a uniform computing environment until you are ready for a full roll-out of your new Vista 'build'.

Determine, as soon as possible, the slowest workstations in your inventory on which Windows Vista will run at an acceptable level. You may not need all of Vista's 'bells and whistles' during your initial Vista roll-out, but you will need those features soon enough. Be prepared to add memory to these older workstations to get acceptable performance. If you want the bells & whistles, be prepared to upgrade graphics cards as well. If the processor is too slow, don't waste your time -- and don't blindly accept Microsoft's word for it when they give you minimum requirements -- double those figures for a crude but more realistic estimate. Hopefully, you are not more than a year away from being able to retire all of the hardware in your inventory which is incapable of running Vista.

Anxious to move to Vista sooner rather than later? Don't be too anxious. A crippled OS is worse than an outdated OS. Aside from the importance of having sufficiently robust hardware though, it is also important to confirm application compatibility with the new OS. Before upgrading your student computing 'build' make sure that all of your mission-critical instructional applications have been thoroughly tested with Vista. If in doubt, talk to your software vendors about patches for Vista.

If you can, start developing your Vista 'build' now. If you are not beta testing Vista, as soon as Vista goes 'golden' (the first production release) invest in a retail copy of Vista and start developing a preliminary Vista 'build' based on the hardware upon which you expect to run Vista. This will help you determine the constraints you will face along the way.

Buying a new OS with new hardware will be easier on your budget than retail upgrades; so, as soon as possible, buy your new workstations with Vista licenses (no matter what OS you plan to run on them initially) and when you are ready for your roll-out, seek out educational pricing for OS upgrades on those older workstations which are robust enough to run Vista.

While a wholesale OS migration is a daunting task, in the long run, it is far easier than trying to support multiple student labs running multiple 'builds' under multiple operating systems. Planning is the key.

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