Is your school ready for Vista?

There's been a lot written about Vista this Fall and even more since Vista went 'gold'. Most of it was speculation about how fast Vista would be adopted in the enterprise but very little has been discussed about the practicalities of moving to Vista in an educational setting.

Well, it's been a month since I last wrote about Vista in Education IT.  (See Adopting Vista won’t be THAT simple.)  Since that time, I have installed Vista Enterprise on a fast one-year-old 1GB workstation (w/ WDDM graphics) and on a slow one-year-old 2GB laptop (w/o WDDM).  I have also installed it on a brand new, very-fast 3GB workstation (w/ WDDM).  Lastly, I have Vista Basic running on a very-lame six-year-old 866MHx, 512MB SYSTEM (w/o WDDM). 

I am impressed.  It is clear to me that the target RAM ceiling -- where Vista can 'pull out all the stops' -- is 4GB.  (That ceiling was 512MB for Windows XP Pro.)  Remarkably though, Vista performs very nicely at 1GB -- with only an occasional pause to 'catch its breath'.  The typical consumer will be happy with 1GB and the power user will start out with 2GB and in two years be at 4GB. 

I've talked about the importance of life-cycle funding until I am blue in the face but, like it or not, not everybody 'in the trenches' has that luxury.  To make matters worse, those of you with the least amount of money to spend are most likely to have adamant administrators (with limited IT experience) who are pushing you to upgrade sooner rather than later. 

So what should you do? 

This would be much simpler question if you were in a position to buy new hardware.  Today, you will be hard pressed to find new systems on the market that are not "Vista Capable" and for a few bucks more these same systems are "Vista Premium Ready".  By all means, if you have the money to buy new hardware, make sure it is "Vista Premium Ready" -- or you will live to regret it!  Unless you are receiving life-cycle funding each year -- or your IT department has recently been infused with lots of cash (such as with my colleague, Chris Dawson), this option is not really available to you so ...

First, do an assessment of the capabilities of the hardware that you do have. 

If a system can be upgraded to 1GB of RAM or more, and runs at 1GHz or better, then it goes in the 'maybe' pile.  If this pile doesn't represent two-thirds of your functioning computing seats, then jumping to Vista at this time is ill-advised. Period.  Support for Windows XP will continue into 2009 or later so there really is no rush. 

What about Microsoft's hardware recommendations? 

Microsoft tells you that you can run Vista on a 800MHz system with only 512MB of RAM, a 40GB HD, and a DVD-ROM drive.  Right?  It's true -- well, kind of -- but boot up times in such a configuration are dismal and while Vista is remarkably stable, even in this configuration -- thanks to exceptional caching capabilities -- it is still a poor performer when compared to Windows XP.  (Don't count on ReadyBoost -- it only works with the fastest USB drives.)   

Now, looking more closely at the "maybe" pile.

How many of your hand-me-downs do not need an upgrade to get to 1GB of RAM?  Since Windows XP performs well with 256MB of RAM, most likely all of them will require a RAM upgrade.  Expect to pay around $100 per GB.  How much does Vista really need?  I am writing this from a 1GB Dell GX280 and, even with four windows open (one of them Outlook 2003), 1GB is sufficient.  Would it be better with 2GB?  Yes, it definitely would but I am certainly not complaining either. 

How many do not need DVD-ROM drives?  These can be had for around $30 each but a DVD/RW drive (around $50) is a much better buy.

How large are your hard drives?  And more importantly, how many hours on are them?  A five-year-old workstation could have over 40,000 hours of operation on it.  There's another $50 for 100GB.  (Smaller drives -- down to 40GB -- while suitable, are hard to find these days.)

So now your all set.  Right?  Well, maybe.  But, unless your second-hand workstations have the latest and greatest graphics cards, they will lack the 'eye candy' offered by Vista.  Expect to pay $70 or more for this upgrade.

So here we are.  For $270 per workstation, you can upgrade those hand-me-down workstations in your 'maybe' pile to be "Vista Home Premium Ready".  Is it worth it?  My answer is a resounding NO!  Not unless you have a driving need for some of Vista's new features, or you need an application which is Vista dependent.  (I know of none.)

Why not?  Because $270 per workstation is half-way to a new system, and one-third of the way to a truly robust new system.  Why would you throw money at lame hardware that is four or five years old just to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista?   

Should you be upgrading a test machine or two and running Vista through its paces with all the software you support?  By all means, YES!  But, right now -- today -- your students will benefit very little by having a nice new OS with lots of neat graphics capabilities on their desktop.   

Tomorrow is another matter.  By Fall of 2007, your students and faculty will be asking for Vista, and by Spring 2008, they will be clamouring for Vista.  Repeat after me ...

"Begin evaluating Vista NOW!  Begin evaluating Vista NOW!  Begin evaluating vista NOW!"