Software upgrades: Skip a generation

Software updates can be a grind. Your best bet is probably skipping a generation between upgrades.

We all know how grinding the software update schedule can be. Many application vendors are on an annual release calendar so they can refresh their revenue streams. But not all those annual releases include features compelling enough to make them worth the headache of deploying them within your organization.

The problem is much worse with client operating systems, though they tend to get upgrades on a slightly longer calendar. Windows ME was less stable than Windows 98. Windows XP has virtually no penetration within businesses yet, so it's hard to say how it stacks up against Windows 2000. However, because XP uses a radically different code base than 98 or ME, ensuring it works with all your organization's applications may be tricky, despite the extensive work Microsoft put in to promote good compatibility.

Server operating systems are the worst. Stability is a key criterion for server operation, and anything as major as a new operating system is bound to adversely affect that stability (unless you have a quirky server to start with, in which case you may want to grasp at any straw that promises help). Windows 2000 was a major upgrade to Windows NT in that it added Active Directory. Yet, according to IDC analysts, almost 60 percent of installed Windows operating systems at the end of last year were still running on Windows NT.

These organizations have the right idea. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

All vendors want to entice you with compelling new features, some of which are actually worth paying for. Directory services, for instance, can be extremely valuable because they can simplify ongoing management tasks across the enterprise, especially when third-party application vendors take advantage of them for authentication.

I propose, therefore, that you plan to skip a generation in your software purchases, beginning with your next client and server operating systems.

If the bulk of your clients are running Windows 98, move to XP with new hardware purchases. On the other hand, if you're running Windows 2000 Professional, pass on XP and stick with 2000. There's virtue in having a single standard client platform. If you have some Windows 98 mixed in with your Windows 2000 clients, things get a little trickier. I'd pick whichever platform predominates and apply my rule to it.

The same rule applies on the server side. If you skipped NetWare 5 after biting the bullet and moving to Novell Directory Services in NetWare 4, consider upgrading to NetWare 6. If you're still running NT and have passed on 2000, consider Windows .Net Server, due later this year. It will enable attractive policy management features in Windows XP clients, which, chances are, you will roll out someday. Even though you can't start piloting .Net Server yet, you can use a copy of Windows 2000 as a stand-inon your test subnet to gain familiarity with Active Directory; any plan you devise to move your NT domains to Active Directory will still apply to .Net Server.

If you're already standardized on 2000, ignore .Net Server; the incremental gain won't be worth the acquisition expense or implementation time. Any time you plan a major server operating system upgrade across your enterprise, it behooves you to consider all your choices. That's particularly true right now, as Microsoft's deadline for customers to sign up for its Software Assurance licensing plan looms on July 31. Most customers haven't agreed to let Microsoft feed them regular updates in exchange for regular payments, and I don't blame them. I want to pay for software on my own timetable. Opting out lets you do that; you pay more each time, but only when you choose to update.

Microsoft's licensing demand comes at a bad time for its customers, thanks to the economy, but a good time for its competitors, whose products are stronger than ever. NetWare 6 is still an excellent file and print server, and the new version adds some very attractive Internet and Web access features. Linux is growing in popularity, and though it still lacks the number of server-based applications Windows can boast, Linux offers at least one of just about every kind of enterprise management application available.

Microsoft will no longer sell NT after 2003 and drop support at the end of 2004. That doesn't mean you need to clean it out of your server room by then. If your servers are relatively stable and you don't plan to add new hardware or software to them, let 'em run. Instead of the thrill of running the latest and greatest, you'll have the satisfaction of simply running.

Do you plan to upgrade your operating systems every chance you get? TalkBack below or e-mail us your thoughts.