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Special reports - Get ready: Preparing for Windows 2000 - July 1999
What can you do to make sure that you’re ready? Jane Dudman finds out.
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Windows 2000 is coming and it will pay IT managers to think about preparing for it now, rather than later. That’s the message from the industry as Microsoft tries to get its marketing and technical machines in sync for the launch of its largest operating system to date, which it hopes will underpin its long-time ambitions in the enterprise space.

IT managers aren’t going to be short of advice


One thing is certain in the run-up to the official release of Windows 2000: IT managers aren’t going to be short of advice. Systems experts, systems integrators, software tools vendors, training specialists - you name it and they’ve got a view on how to get ready for the big launch. In the face of this avalanche of advice, IT managers might just be tempted to take the offer from the managed service vendors, such as BT, which promises that its managed intranet service, BT Site Exchange, will "take away the pain of such upgrades and implementations, leaving the IT manager free to concentrate on more strategic decisions."

If only life were really that simple! Few IT managers will be able to just shrug off the Windows 2000 launch onto their service provider, although many will be working closely with existing partners, which should cut down on some of the pain. Most major integrators are offering Windows 2000 help and advice of some kind, such as the JumpStart programme from Data General, which is selling fixed-price impact assessment of the new operating system on existing networks for companies with limited time and technical resources to upgrade easily. While DG is a major player with evident Windows 2000 knowledge, IT managers should be wary of some of the smaller third-party software companies with less expertise. What will inevitably be a learning experience for all involved should not become a one-sided experience in which the paying customer becomes an unwitting guinea pig and the supplier picks up valuable expertise at the customer’s expense (see point ten of checklist).

Starting your evaluation


So where do most IT managers start in attempting to evaluate this new operating system in the context of their own organisation? There are some general points to bear in mind and then there are the more detailed technical aspects of Windows 2000 that will need careful consideration, given the new features the system will include. In general terms, there doesn’t seem to be a headlong rush towards Windows 2000. "The customer feedback is that while they’ll look at the system and will evaluate it in small pilots, most are not going to implement it particularly quickly," says Adam Jollans, IBM’s EMEA NT software marketing manager. This is not because organisations aren’t interested in the potential of the operating system, but out of caution. "This is a very big operating system and a lot of it is new code," comments Jollans. "People want to give it time to settle down."

Jollans adds that organisations are also well aware that Windows 2000 has many new features that they will want to use, but they need to know how to go about that in the best way. IBM, he says, is working with customers, trying to use its own experiences of porting some 300 software products into the Windows 2000 environment to help them see the best way to exploit the new system to the full. It is also ensuring that it will work alongside customer’s other systems, since IBM’s own surveys of the biggest companies reveal that almost 90% use three or more operating systems.

Encouraging early evaluation


Mark Tennant, Windows NT server product marketing manager at Microsoft UK, agrees that Windows 2000 will bring big changes, but says Microsoft is working hard, particularly with the beta 3 version released in early May, to ensure the system itself includes lots of help for systems administrators and IT managers. "We’ve eased the implementation for people, not just those moving from NT, but also from Novell or Unix backgrounds," he comments.

Microsoft is certainly encouraging its customers to evaluate this early version of Windows 2000. It is sending the beta 3 software out to almost 500,000 customers around the world, as well as 140,000 developers and 100,000 channel partners. Tennant believes many IT managers will have time to evaluate the beta 3 version. "A lot of companies are locking down their systems for the Year 2000, so this is an ideal time to get hold of the beta 3 software, test it with users, look at the issues and generally become familiar with the system," he comments.

Complications


Not everyone is quite as sure as Tennant that it will be so simple to get going with Windows 2000, even if they have had a look at the beta software. In April, Gartner analyst Ed Thompson told a London conference that Windows 2000 won’t be in a "reasonably stable" release until at least the middle of 2000. And while Active Directory is the single most important new feature in the new operating system (see box), there have already been reports that not all the planned management tools to help implement Windows 2000 within a wider corporate network will be available with the initial release of the software this autumn.

Paul Quinn, systems lecturer at consultancy and training company Aris, points out that it will also be complex to handle the domains within Windows 2000. "A number of companies may wish to reduce the number of NT domains they had introduced for administrative and/or network reasons; perhaps combining users and resources from several domains into one," he comments. "This is where the problems start. How do you move users from one domain to another? What about computer accounts? What about resources, printers, shared-folders and so on and their access control lists?" Quinn says that while moving computer accounts may be relatively easy, it won’t be so simple to move a user from one domain to another. "You may choose to move user accounts from several NT 4.0 domains into a single NT 4.0 domain, using the addusers.exe resource kit utility; bearing in mind that you can only contain about 40,000 users in a single NT domain," says Quinn. "Alternatives include the Movetree utility in the Windows 2000 resource kit to move users from one Windows 2000 domain to another, or scripting your transfer via the Active Directory Scripting Interface (ADSI) and editing tools. Whatever method you choose it’s certainly not a simple ‘drag-n-drop’ operation."

Understanding NT 4.0


Getting a grip on the existing Windows NT Version 4 domain structure is certainly a good first step towards Windows 2000, recommends Steve Dawes, technical director at corporate reseller Ultima Business Systems. "Many people might be inclined to think this doesn’t matter, since they will be moving to Windows 2000, but don’t countenance this attitude," counsels Dawes. "There will be good tools to help the migration from NT4.0 to Windows 2000, but they will assume that the underlying domain structure is correct."

Most of the pundits agree that it is a good idea to get IT staff trained in the basic skills, including a good knowledge of the TCP/IP protocol, before embarking on any evaluation of Windows 2000. It’s also a good idea to enhance existing skillsets among IT staff, Dawes points out, rather than starting from scratch. Sending someone already familiar with SMS V2 on a Windows 2000 course is a good idea, because of the similarities between that and Microsoft Management Console, a key feature in the new operating system. Similarly, a member of staff with knowledge of Microsoft Exchange is likely to pick up the way Active Directory works more quickly than those without such basic grounding.

Timing the move


Advice is mixed on when might be the best time to consider a move to Windows 2000. Clearly, no one is going to shift their full operational systems yet to an operating system that’s still having its bugs ironed out. But while analysts like Gartner remain cautious, others in the market believe such caution could in fact catch IT managers out. "This time next year, vendors will be shipping Windows 2000 applications and someone from the business is going to walk in and say let’s run these things," says Olivier Thierry, VP of marketing at software tools vendor Mission Critical. "Then the IT guys will get caught and will end up having to do things in a rush." Thierry says that most NT users he’s spoken to about moving to Windows 2000 are planning to make the move in the next six months to a year. "Having spoken to us, we find they realise they can move that up by about four or five months," he comments. "They can do a lot of the initial cleaning up and design right now."

The first steps towards migrating are exactly what common sense would dictate: see what is already out there; tidy it up, especially the domain structure; and plan for the Active Directory hierarchy. All these things, claims Thierry, can be done now, in the NT4 environment, putting companies well ahead when Windows 2000 does come along. This is creating opportunities for several specialist suppliers, such as those offering inventory and impact assessment services. NetCensus, from one such company, Tally Systems, for instance, keeps track of PC software, making it easy when it comes to upgrades, according to David Miller, computer consultant at the UK Patent Office, which uses NetCensus. "We know exactly how many copies we need to buy and the hardware details if we need to upgrade the PCs with more memory," comments Miller.

Keeping track of memory


Keeping track of memory is certainly going to be important when it comes to implementing Windows 2000. Although there are four versions of the new operating system, with different systems requirements, it is clear that more memory is going to be needed to cope with this major new release. Microsoft recommends a minimum of 64MB, which means more sales for memory companies like Samsung Semiconductor. "Machines shipping now will have an average of 64MB anyway, but obviously there’s a large installed base with less than that," comments Adrian Elms, Samsung Semiconductor’s senior sales manager. With an extra 32MB of memory costing about 30 at the moment, the cost of more memory could add up, and Elms also warns that while memory upgrades are straightforward, IT managers should ensure they get compatible products and aren’t wooed by some of the cheap and cheerful memory brigade into getting substandard products.

There’s a lot to think about in considering a move to Windows 2000, says Andrew McConnell, a senior consultant at systems integrator Morse, "Upgrading to Windows 2000 will require considerable forethought and preparation, but the benefits in terms of improved manageability, cost of ownership, resilience and scalability will make it worthwhile," he says. "And a properly structured evaluation and pilot will pay big dividends when it comes to a full scale deployment."

Checklist

1. Work out a comprehensive current configuration management approach

2. Identify current desktop/laptop/server configurations

3. Build a reliable network and systems architecture

4. Look at mixture of current desktop operating systems and network operating systems and determine migration strategy, because the choices available will change, depending on whether, for instance you already have Windows 95, 98 or NT as the existing major base.

5.Get a proper backup approach in place NOW. Look at a ruthless policy of identifying directory and file tree structure from local data or build policies to ensure users are encouraged to hold key data on server resource, because this helps reduce the risk of losing key data during migration).

6. Identify pilot/beta group and jump in feet first. The only safe bet is to suck it and see!

7. Set realistic user expectations and encourage early buy-in

8. Get a sponsor from the business

9. Model risks and therefore isolate them early

10. Identify your technology partner early and get them to buy in skills, rather than learn at your expense

11. Upgrade interim users, thus removing or reducing unknown and post install support problems and pre-install installation problems.

12. Separate changes. For instance, carry out hardware upgrades now so only software changes have to be carried out when migrating.

13. Carry out work on legacy/heritage applications now to reduce risks of failure

Source: Empower Dynamics

 

Active Directory

The biggest single change with Windows 2000 will be the move from a flat database structure to Active Directory, Microsoft’s hierarchical database, to store information on users, computers, printers and other network resources. Active Directory replaces the flat Security Accounts Manager (SAM) database used in Windows NT. The hierarchical approach within Active Directory is based on the concept of the domain, which is used in Windows NT. Domains can be linked together to form trees and trees can be combined into forests. A Windows 2000 domain can contain many more objects than under NT and it can be divided up using Organisational Units (OUs), which can be used to reflect a company’s administrative structure.

At the same time, domains can be divided on a geographic basis, to control network traffic more efficiently. The ability to use both the OU and geographic basis for domains is a major advantage, but also means network administrators have to consider several aspects of domain structure and management. It is by no means straightforward to transfer user accounts from one domain to another, which is something administrators may wish to do in tidying up their domain structures.


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