eWEEK Corporate Partners Discuss Windows XP, IT Buying

A countdown clock on the Microsoft Corp. campus has been ticking off—to the second--the amount of time remaining until Windows XP is officially released. That clock stops ticking this week, but, based on discussions with members of the eWEEK Corporate Partner advisory board, many IT organizations do not share Microsofts feelings of anticipation. eWEEKs Peter Coffee, Jason Brooks and Debra Donston met recently with Corporate Partners from the commercial, retail, industrial, academic and health-care industries; the CPs provided their organizational and IT management perspective on Windows XP and Microsoft OS migrations, buying and upgrade strategies In economic downtimes, technology futures and security frustrations.

eWEEK: Does the release of Windows XP have any impact on any of you as far as your plans for buying new machines? Or on whether youll be buying new machines over the next few months with XP by default, or going out of your way to continue buying Windows 2000?

Frank Calabrese, Bose Corp.: Our images currently consist of Windows 2000, Office 2000 and a number of utilities as our core build. We also have some remnants of NT machines out there and some Windows 9X machines. We deploy Windows 2000 unless there is a business or software application that does not run well under Windows 2000.

We intend to, somewhere in the future, deploy a tested configuration of the Windows XP operating system with Office XP. That will be the only way that we deploy Office XP, or, for that matter, Windows XP.

eWEEK: Is it likely youll be doing that this calendar year?

Calabrese: Not this calendar year. Were looking probably six to eight months out. A couple of things were predicating this on is our ability to get rid of the remaining 42 percent of the machines that are not currently Windows 2000. Im not looking to support more than two Microsoft operating systems at any time.

eWEEK: So you see Windows 2000 and XP as being different operating systems?

Calabrese: Yes, absolutely. I dont have any real desire to go back and retrofit my Windows 2000 machines to XP unless I really have to.

eWEEK: Is anyone planning a substantially more rapid deployment of XP in desktop or portable systems?

Larry Shaw, Nordstrom Inc.: We are currently rolling out Windows 2000. We have Windows 2000 in all of our key infrastructure servers and about half of our desktops with Office 2000. At this point, we are evaluating Windows XP and Office XP, but have no plans to implement them this year.

eWEEK: Does Windows XP solve a problem that was high on anyones list of things you needed to solve? Things you havent been able to get from either Windows 2000 or 9x?

Steve Curcuru, Mugar Enterprises: In my opinion, trying to go to XP is going to create more problems that it solves at this juncture. Ive got a mixture of 98 SE and 2000, and its working quite reliably. I just dont want to go to the hassle or trouble at this point to put in an untested system that I dont see adding much benefit.

eWEEK: Anyone take the opposite point of view on that?

Nelson Ramos, Memorial Hospitals Association: Were looking at XP on laptops, and we will probably begin testing those in a couple of months. Generally, weve found that each new operating system improves the manageability of the security of laptop devices. Thats where were going to do the initial testing.

As far as the desktop devices, our major focus right now is on getting rid of the 9x machines and converting them to Windows 2000. Since we only want to touch the devices once, in those cases were doing an upgrade to Office XP.

eWEEK: Nelson just talked about the notion that each release of Windows is at least incrementally more secure, and weve recently gone through yet another very costly campaign of trying to clean up after a worm that managed to exploit multiple vulnerabilities through multiple pathways in the Microsoft platform.

Is anyone going through a crisis of confidence in the Microsoft platform that makes them want to look at doing something drastic?

Curcuru: I maintain, as Ive maintained for a number of years, that Microsoft does not do an adequate job with security.

eWEEK: Are they getting there, or are they still in denial that their core technology was inadequately designed from that point of view?

Curcuru: What evidence do you have that theyve changed at all? What real-world evidence is there that they have seriously, at the core of their operating system, dedicated the meaningful resources to make a significant change? I think they are in denial, still.

Baradet: Our Webmasters have been having a good time saying, "I told you so." They prefer [non-Microsoft] platforms, but we, like a lot of other people, are kind of locked into IIS because of the third-party systems we depend on for registrar, admissions, and so on; they are all build on IIS.

We just have to expend the energy to make sure that, when a patch comes out, we get it on there as soon as possible. We can no longer wait until the next scheduled downtime. We really have to get it that same day, and usually try and hit it by the close of the business day.

eWEEK: Are you saying that checking for, downloading and installing IIS patches is, as far as youre concerned, an everyday task?

Baradet: Yes. Were starting to check for patches everyday.

The [HFNetChk] net check tool was a nice idea, but it only goes halfway. It gives you a list of where the patches are, but youve still got to go and download them.

Why couldnt that tool just FTP to Microsoft and suck [the patches] down for you, rather than you having to find the Web page and do four or five mouse clicks, and then pull it down and integrate it all together? Its appreciated, but it was kind of a halfway effort.

As myself and [my colleague] were pulling down these patches, we were thinking, "What a waste of time. How many other people are doing exactly the same thing we are? What is the aggregate cost of this to all of their user base?"

eWEEK: Do the rest of you share Kevins perception that you have to have identification and response pretty much within one day now?

Gary Bronson, Washington Group International Inc.: I dont have an IIS server installed anywhere in my operation.

eWEEK: By choice?

Bronson: Yes, its pretty much a Netscape environment on that side. This whole change-management process … I think when we talk about back-end infrastructure, those are the kind of things that will kill you. I mean, if you literally have to run through that many changes in your back-end infrastructure, you just end up bypassing testing steps, bypassing things because you dont have time to do them. And anytime you start bypassing that change-management process, youre just setting yourself up.

eWEEK: Gary, how would you characterize your back-end architecture at this time?

Bronson: I have Sun Solaris on my Oracle financials. Thats my jewels right there. I do have NT servers. I have some Novell servers, all doing file/print.

eWEEK: And youve made the choice to do Oracle and Solaris for reasons primarily of reliability? Or are there other factors that have influenced that choice?

Bronson: That decision was made about three and a half years ago, before I came here. At that juncture, Microsoft wasnt even perceived as an option.

eWEEK: A couple of you have mentioned in the same breath as Windows XP the other big upgrade that goes with that in many environments-- Office XP. Does anyone want the things that Microsoft is saying will make Office XP a major productivity boost?

Curcuru: Its not enough of a plus for me to go through the effort of putting it out there. I think itll be at least six months.

eWEEK: Is there anyone who feels that tools like Outlook and the tighter integration of Outlook with other Office applications are making it easier for a multisite workforce to work together more readily?

Nelson Ramos, Memorial Hospitals Association: Just marginally. Again, I think the Microsoft strategy is you have to jump into the deep end of the pool. A lot of the purported benefits imply that you are on native Active Directory, and I dont think all of us are there yet. Were sort of making incremental benefits, but Im not sure. People that I work with have yet to see the purported Microsoft vision.

eWEEK: Is that a perception the rest of you share? That Active Directory is the Kool-Aid you have to drink to make the rest of this stuff even potentially work?

Baradet: If you want Exchange 2000, you have to have Active Directory. It doesnt work without it.

eWEEK: Does anyone remember the word Intellimirror? Wasnt that going to be one of the silver bullets in Windows 2000, in terms of making it much easier to restore a clients configurations by rolling in a new machine and immediately being able to duplicate all of the user settings and things? Has that been important to anybody yet?

Bronson: Has anybody got it working in their environment?

Baradet: Ive not even gotten around to it. Weve got a new CRM system coming up, and between that and patching and the day-to-day support, we just havent had time.

eWEEK: One of the issues thats been surrounding XP is the more or less simultaneous transition by Microsoft to a new licensing model. The model seems to put a tremendous amount of pressure on corporate sites to upgrade rapidly on Microsofts timetable, or face much higher prices for doing so at a more deliberate pace.

Have you had an opportunity to look at these licensing proposals and to decide how you plan to respond?

Calabrese: I dont think its so much the licensing thats causing us the issues. One of the reasons were looking at XP is that we cant afford to be running an operating system or an application that Microsoft no longer supports.

So with every new release from Microsoft, Ive got to also think, "Is this part of my strategy, to get off an older version that some time further down in the future wont be supported?" I need to start migrating or planning to migrate to XP because theres declining support in the very near future for NT4.

eWEEK: Is that a calculation that some of the rest of you have also made?

Baradet: Were starting to think about what were going to do. We have a select license program for the university, which I think is up next June. We have until the end of next February to decide if were going to go with the upgrade advantage and software assurance fees. We need to start considering what were going to do.

eWEEK: Some of you have made reference to feeling that, whatever your issues with Microsoft might be, that youre kind of entangled in the interlocking relationships of all of the third-party software that is only on the Windows platform. Are any of you actively exploring a dramatic change to Linux on servers, Linux on desktops, or any other alternative architectures? Or to a substantial shift to reliance on another technology provider?

Ramos: I think were caught between a rock and a hard place. Our enterprise systems now are so complex that the technologies vendors embrace are, in essence, what we have to follow. Everyone is tied into the whole Windows platform.

At least for the next couple of years, we see that as the dominant force. Like I said, the applications are so complex--in our case, in healthcare, we need a robust stance and a reliability thats so high that we cant afford to experiment.

Bronson: I see a lot more individuals and small businesses making those changeovers.

Curcuru: Ive attempted to download StarOffice 6.0 [beta], but only to look at it. I dont have the resources or the time to seriously roll it out. I just want to look at it and see if it will be an option, if it gets solid enough, one or two years down the road.

eWEEK: We havent yet talked a lot about hardware. What most needs attention over, say, the next six to 12 months?

Bronson: Were looking hard at bringing in a SAN right now. Thats one of the things thats a priority for us as a newer technology we havent deployed before.

Baradet: Were starting to think that tape backup is not going to cut it anymore, even with DLT and tape libraries, because the amount of time we have in the evening hours to back up systems is shrinking.

Disk is getting cheaper and an awful lot faster than tape is. One of the things that Im going to be thinking hard about is maybe a storage area network in doing disk-to-disk backup, and then, for very critical stuff, disk-to-tape off the SAN device during the day.

Ramos: Thats our common thing; backup and redundancy. Weve gotten a SAN. Our major backups now are sort of the snapshot approach to backups.

Again, with all of these operating systems, my biggest issue is on a device, if theres a corruption, doing a bare metal restore. Its extremely difficult right now to do that.

eWEEK: It doesnt sound as if anyone is finding their desktop and laptop capabilities to be limiting factors right now. Are you, in fact, perhaps even finding that the machines the vendors want to sell you are faster, bigger and more expensive than what you would buy if you were able to tell them what configurations you wanted them to offer?

Bronson: I just went through the Compaq roadmap with their whole new Evo line. What was interesting is, the machines that Ive got coming out to me, Im going to get pretty much at the same price as what Im paying.

Normally, I have my little blip up, and then it drops down again. It seemed like the newer technology was going to come out and be priced so that I could literally slide it in and never have that blip up.

eWEEK: You feel that the vendors are under tremendous price pressure right now?

Bronson: Yes, I do.

Baradet: Were buying primarily on a price point for a type of machine: so many dollars for an administrative desktop, so many dollars for a research desktop. We kind of allocate that and then shop around when we buy the machines to get the most bang for the buck. Recently, it has been Dell, and Michael Dell just might be the last man standing.

eWEEK: What do you see as the reasonable number for what to pay to equip a desktop, Kevin?

Baradet: Were driving it down close to $1,100 or $1,200, fully loaded up with memory.

eWEEK: With or without a monitor?

Baradet: Without a monitor. Typically, unless [a user has] a space problem, we keep the monitor until it dies. Usually the cost to repair the monitor is not worth it, so at that point well be switching to flat panels to gain back desk space and also for energy reasons.

eWEEK: How have your upgrade and purchase patterns changed during the last year or so?

Curcuru: We have spent less money, and I am far less cutting-edge and experimental than I used to be. I used to try almost all of the newest stuff to see if it had value or whatever, and Im doing much less of that now.

Bronson: Upgrading is heavily scrutinized--we bring in a new machine, and how we bring it in is how we try to keep it. We really are trying to minimize the upgrade process while that machine is used by that person.

Weve done the same with the OS, [which is] not like the core applications that we use to get our job done. Were using AutoCAD or were using other tools, and those are the tools we would look to upgrade. But from an operating system point of view, thats not our driver to upgrade.

Curcuru: Im looking almost now to some extent that stability is a value as opposed to trying new tools or new OSes that would increase productivity. Unless Im absolutely positive Im going to get a really, really good productivity return, I tend to leave things as they are – try to keep them stable.