By Jeffrey Schwartz

While many tech professionals have unique horror stories to relate about Windows XP migration efforts, there are a few that have gone on without a hitch. Pacific Neon Co., a Sacramento, CA, electronic sign manufacturer, is one such case.

“It was a piece of cake,” said Brian Mealey, the company’s IT manager. Mealey said he went to XP because of the crashes and bugs that had become commonplace in his network of Windows 95/98 desktops. The tech manager sprinted past the standard upgrade route to Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and Windows 2000 Professional, as his in-house applications weren’t compatible with those systems.

Since Windows XP can simulate the operating system on which an application was designed to run—effectively tricking the app into believing it is running on the original platform—Mealey decided to move to XP, though with some trepidation.

“I was very concerned, but we decided to take the plunge,” he said.

There were a few bumps
The one problem encountered involved the company’s proprietary software used to design neon signs. That application is set up on a separate desktop running Windows 95.

“We haven’t run into anything that would have worked with Windows 2000 but wouldn’t work with XP,” Mealey said. There are several things that do work on XP, however, such as an old Xerox printer, that wouldn’t work with Windows 2000, he said.

Ironically, the need for more stability on the desktop began about two years ago, after Pacific Neon changed out its print and file server platform from Novell Netware 4.11 to Windows NT Server 4.0. At the same time, Pacific Neon started rolling out the Outlook e-mail client.

“When we went to NT Server, everyone started running a lot more software, and we started having a lot more desktop freezes,” Mealey recalled. “Our network was doing fine, but I was spending all my time putting out little fires on the desktop.”

The move to NT was a financial decision. “Frankly, the stability of the Novell package was terrific, and the security was nice, but that’s what Novell’s tops at,” he explained. Nevertheless, the IT leader had no regrets about moving to NT Server.

“All we used Novell for was print and file sharing, so it didn’t have to work very hard,” he said. “We’re doing more now, and with everyone having access to the Internet, I find the common interface between all the Windows programs, including NT, made it a lot easer. I didn’t have as big a learning curve as going to NetWare 5.5.”

Now Mealey is contemplating whether to upgrade to Windows 2000 Server or to Microsoft’s forthcoming .NET Server platform.

“The .NET stuff still scares me, but I can see us going to Windows 2000 server—it’s pretty stable,” he said.

Why the XP migration went well
With the XP upgrade, the network and desktop crashes have pretty much disappeared. So why did Pacific Neon’s upgrade go smoothly when others have experienced compatibility and network connectivity problems?

Perhaps preparation played a role. Mealey estimated he spent 60 hours reading articles about Windows XP, and he added that his organization has a simple network, hosted by PacBell. Also, he reformatted all of the client PCs before installing Windows XP—a move experts believe always helps eliminate bugs and configuration errors from the incumbent OS software.

“Starting from scratch is good,” Mealey said. ”I’ve done 15 upgrades in my life, and 10 were a hassle because you bring bugs into the new OS, so I ended up reformatting them anyway.”

One thing he did caution others considering XP about is not to use it for remote users that don’t have access to broadband networks due to the large file and security updates that Microsoft puts out.

“Those are some massive updates,” he said. “It would have been a nightmare if we didn’t have a T1.”

Overall, Mealey was very surprised at how seamless the migration was.

“I’m not one of these ‘gee I love Microsoft’ kind of guys,” he said. “[It’s] ruined many a night and weekend for me having to resolve issues, but this one I’m pretty positive about. I must be the real exception.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is a longtime technology editor and writer who specializes in Microsoft coverage and technologies.