With the release of Windows XP, clients will ask consultants to help them upgrade their current systems. While many companies will be tempted to skip Windows 2000 and move directly to the latest product, experts say that won’t be the cost-effective, trouble-free transition it’s supposed to be.

Instead, they recommend treating upgrades as an ongoing project, creating a “managed diversity” of products that include prior versions of Windows. They also suggest using third-party software to automate migration and reduce hidden costs that occur with each upgrade.

The migration myth
So-called “forklift,” or all-at-once, upgrades are costly and disruptive for large enterprises, said Tom Hickman, product manager for Connected Corporation, a software, services, and support firm. While most IT departments think of migration as a one-time event, Hickman has found that the frustration of IT professionals and end users with frequent upgrades is ongoing.

“They’re happening not once in the lifetime of a computer, not once in the lifetime of an employee, but once a year or once every 18 months,” Hickman said. “As we talk to our prospects and research this space, [we find] that systems are only deployed for 36 months. So that means 33 percent of all the systems in an enterprise are going to go away in a year.”

Problems with upgrades
End-user downtime and loss of information are some of the not-so-obvious costs associated with any upgrade or migration. Often, they are not calculated as a cost of migrating to a new operating system, Hickman said, and they are compounded with the time it takes IT personnel to complete the migration.

If IT departments manually upgrade each desktop, it can take as long as four hours per machine, Hickman said. That means that in a normal business day, one staff member could upgrade two PCs. If a company has 1,000 PCs, that’s 4,000 working hours—or 500 business days—to complete one migration.

End-user downtime
Hickman cited one of his firm’s clients whose IT department supports 80,000 end users—most of whom work remotely—as an example of the extreme cost of end-user downtime. Although the client, a consulting firm, uses its own proprietary software to ease the migration process, it still loses at least one working day per user for each upgrade due to the time it takes to get the computer shipped or the user to visit the facility.

“These particular consultants bill at about $200 to $300 an hour, depending on their seniority,” Hickman said. “If they’re not working for eight hours at $200 an hour, there’s $1,600 lost. And if that happens every 18 months, you’re looking at millions and millions of dollars.”

Additionally, you must also consider the time it takes for users to acclimate to the new operating system, Hickman said. Users will also want to investigate the new features that the upgrade brings, which takes more time away from their work.

Loss of information (Where’s my stuff?)
Once users begin to investigate their new environment, some users may find that their documents and files may not be located in the same area as before or that they’re gone completely.

Hickman calls this problem “Where’s my stuff?”

“I’ve actually felt the pain on both sides, as an end user and administrator,” Hickman said. “’Hey, where’s my resume? IT, you lost my product plan, you lost my e-mail, you lost my inbox, and you lost my Rolodex.’ The ‘where’s my stuff’ problem is huge.”

For example, Hickman once performed a migration from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 for a college campus with about 4,000 computers, where the habits of some philosophy professors made the project especially difficult.

“They’re the worst people for effectively managing their computer environment because they have lived in a world of organized chaos with giant piles of books and papers and everything,” Hickman said. “Maybe they represent one end of the spectrum, but they don’t put all of their documents into the My Documents directory.”

On that job, he took a primitive approach to solving the “where’s my stuff” problem. He labeled each hard drive and stored them for six months, a solution he said was impractical for most.

Migrating on the curve
So what is the best way for organizations to approach migrations?

Gartner recommends that clients create a “managed diversity” of products on their desktops by installing updates to the operating system in an “evolutionary” process: Companies live with several versions of Windows until the installed base of hardware is refreshed.

Figure A
Migration bell curve

Hickman calls this method of managed diversity “migrating on the curve.” He uses the bell curve as an illustration. At any one time, a company will have three operating systems in use. Eventually, those machines are updated or replaced and move along the curve.

For example, if you have a client with 1,000 PCs, 250 might be running with Windows 95, 500 with Windows 98, and 250 with Windows 2000. (See Figure A.) As we move forward in the coming year, newly purchased computers that come preloaded with Windows XP will replace the oldest of the version 9x machines, and the remainder will be upgraded to Windows 2000, so the distribution might be more like: 75 systems with Windows 9x, 850 with Windows 2000, and 75 with Windows XP.

Cutting the costs with third-party software
One way organizations can save money and avoid excessive downtime during upgrades is to use third-party software to speed up migration.

Connected, for example, offers a suite-based application with five modules, including one for PC migration that allows settings, configuration options, and data to be moved from machine to machine, regardless of the operating systems, hardware configurations, or versions of software.

By creating an automated process of removing files, updating the OS, and replacing files in a similar way, Hickman said Connected’s migration component could provide a quick return on investment.

He suggests that users would be without their computers for a shorter period of time, their files would be easier to find when they were returned, and the IT department would have to dedicate less time to each machine.

“Software gets [migrating each machine] down into a faster, more manageable time frame,” Hickman said. “Thirty minutes is acceptable; ten minutes is even better. The reason that they spend money on migration software is [that] they want to get this down to an assembly-line process.”

Other third-party migration software vendors
Migration to Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Office XP is creating a one- to two-year sales opportunity for third-party migration software vendors, said Gartner analyst Norma Schroder in a report published Oct. 4.

Miramar and Lanovation are two traditional migration specialists that Schroder recommends. She also cites Connected as one of several new vendors that is moving to the migration software space and offering inexpensive “mass imaging of standard software.” Others include Symantec (Ghost), Previo, and Altiris.

What’s your experience?

Do third-party migration software packages provide a substantial return on investment? Tell us about your experiences with them in an e-mail or post your comments below.