Feature

Implementing change: Windows 2000 roll-outs in the spotlight

With Windows 2000 the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Liz Warren investigates what really happens when you implement Windows 2000 by talking to three organisations that have trusted their businesses to systems running Windows 2000 and revisits Win2K reference site Leicester University

Dulwich Preparatory School in Cranbrook, Kent, is a co-educational independent school for children aged from three to 13, with around 540 day and boarding pupils. One of the school's attractions is the excellent computing facilities it offers to students.

The school has been a long-term user of thin-client technology and uses Microsoft Windows interfaces on a number of legacy machines from Acorn. On top of that, explains Andrew Flowerdew, head of information and communication technologies at the school, using thin-client technology running on the school's newer terminals from NCD provides better security. "For example, we have a number of machines sited in reception areas or offices where staff are not present all the time, and thin-client technology offers the security we're looking for there," he says.

Until recently, the school's thin-client computing was based on NT 4.0, but Flowerdew was keen to move to Win2000 as quickly as possible. "Windows 2000 will provide the same look and feel as Windows 98, which many pupils use at home," he explains. "Also, as a school policy, we like to keep up with the latest technologies."

Another benefit of Win2000 is that it allows Flowerdew to delegate responsibility for a number of administrative tasks to individual departments within the school. "Active Directory Services means department heads can control aspects such as printing and how the interface appears," he explains. "Taking that admin load away from the IT department gives us more time to handle important issues that others can't, and to do the really technical things." Flowerdew says that the greater control of the desktop and system policies provided by Active Directory Services reduces the support burden on the IT department. In addition, the school has seen fewer problems with client machines since introducing the new operating system.

Win2000 has allowed Flowerdew to implement the same desktop on both fat and thin clients, using Intellimirror. This allows the school's small IT team to publish updates of application software to fat clients with minimum effort. It also provides consistency within the teaching areas, where fat clients handle local processing for applications such as digital photography and videoconferencing. Here, the support provided by Win2000 Terminal Services for Universal Serial Bus devices such as digital cameras, which were simply not supported by NT 4.0, has proved a significant benefit.

The school was a relatively early adopter of Win2000, beginning its evaluation of the new operating system in June 1999 by running Beta 3 on a couple of machines within the IT department. In September, it rolled Win2000 out to both the thin-client machines used by students and a number of fat clients in other areas that were not running mission-critical applications. A number of other machines were migrated in December 1999, bringing the current total running Win2000 to around 40. The school plans to roll Win2000 out to a further 110 machines this summer, having upgraded to the release-to-manufacture (RTM) version when it became available in February. According to Flowerdew, the switch to the new version was "a breeze - the update is automatic".

To prepare for the implementation, Flowerdew took a one-week NT to Win2000 conversion course that was run by Aris and subsidised by Microsoft. He says the course was vital, particularly because it allowed delegates to explore with others the probable issues surrounding Active Directory Services. "It was important that we were able to mull over ideas about how to change domain models and so on," he says.

The course allowed Flowerdew to carry out most of the implementation work in-house. When he got stuck, he turned to Compaq and its Var Evergreen Electronics, from which the school recently purchased some Compaq iPaqs and laptops with wireless network cards. "Compaq and Evergreen were really helpful in providing support and were able to resolve the few issues we had within a couple of days," Flowerdew explains. "Now, adding new machines with the basic operating system is very easy because of the plug-and-play facilities within Windows 2000."

Flowerdew goes on to point out that Win2000 runs well on the school's existing hardware: the school purchased its last two servers - it tends to buy around one a year - with a Win2000 implementation in mind, but has found Win2000 runs adequately on all its servers. These have a minimum specification of Dual Pentium 266s with at least 256Mbytes of Ram.

The school did encounter a number of minor issues with its application software when it made the switch. For example, its administrative accounting systems are based on FoxPro and a 32-bit version of the database became available only after the school rolled out Win2000. It has also found that the LDAPI implementation of Netscape Messenger Server does not mesh with Active Directory, so it will be moving to Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 this year. Finally, its Citrix Metaframe implementation, which is a beta version, does not always disconnect users properly, leaving hanging sessions that tie up system resources - although Flowerdew suspects that this could simply be a configuration issue.

Despite these drawbacks, Win2000 has delivered everything Dulwich Preparatory School was looking for. In particular, the ability to delegate client tasks and control the desktop through Active Directory Services shows that Win2000 can benefit small IT departments as well as large ones.

Going Places

Part of the Airtours UK Leisure Group, Going Places Leisure Travel provides a full range of holiday and travel services through more than 730 high-street retail outlets. Having appreciated the potential impact of the Internet and other new media channels on the travel industry, Going Places decided to offer customers access to its products and services through an interactive TV system, choosing to work with Sky Digital's Open service.

"Our vision was to provide customers with flexible, interactive access to the latest holiday and travel information and more flexibility in making contact with our call centre staff," explains Airtours e-media operations director, Bill Budd.

Going Places worked with new-media consultancy Gray Interactive to develop a user-friendly interface that would provide access to a range of holiday and travel information. Equally important, according to Budd, was the work carried out with Microsoft solutions provider partner DAT Enterprises to create a simple back-office application, running on Win2000, which would integrate the company's call-centre network, its holiday database and the Open user interface.

Phil Greenhalgh, business development manager at DAT, explains that his company chose to develop the application on Win2000 for a number of reasons. First, by working with Win2000, it would be able to reuse a number of components developed in previous projects. This was the only way in which DAT could meet the extremely short timescales for the project laid down by Going Places, which wanted the system up and running within six months.

On top of that, the complete Win2000 package incorporates a number of elements that gave DAT a head start when developing the application. These include Internet Information Server 5 and a range of Com+ components, such as Microsoft transaction server, Microsoft message queue and Windows terminal services. "All of those features were available as individual items in NT 4 but they were not well developed or integrated," Greenhalgh explains. "Together, they took care of a lot of the communication between the various components we had written."

The key requirement for the back-office application was to allow travel advisors in the call centre to see exactly what the customer browsing the Open service had been looking at. If you visit the Going Places service on Open, you will be presented with a series of menu options that allow you to drill down into details on different holidays. In the higher levels of the system, information is provided in much the same way as teletext, with a series of screens being sent in a continuous loop. However, once customers start making selections and requesting detailed information, interaction becomes two-way, using the dial-up telephone link in the set-top box. Customers can then place calls directly to the call centre or send e-mails requesting either an e-mail response or for a travel advisor to call at a particular time.

DAT Enterprises' solution needed to take all the information on customer activities on the system, which is gathered by the server - operated by Gray Interactive - running the interactive TV application, and load it into its own SQL Server 7 database, before presenting it to call-centre agents through a browser interface. To allow calls to be assigned to agents and managed, the system had to incorporate simple workflow elements, such as work queues, follow-up prompts, transactions and the ability for advisors to record actions and conversations. On top of that, DAT wrote a module to accept credit card transactions and process them through an accredited bank.

The client side of the application runs on any machine with Internet Explorer 4 or above. DAT was confident it would deliver acceptable performance to agents' desktops since it had already implemented the NT 4-based client-side infrastructure at Going Places' call centre in a previous project.

DAT was also responsible for building and testing the Win2000 server, going live on a beta version of the operating system before switching to the release-to-manufacture version, following the official launch of Win2000 in February. "After testing, we were confident that the beta version was entirely stable for a production system, and in the event it proved fine," says Greenhalgh. "Upgrading to release-to-manufacture was also straightforward and the system has been stable for many months." He points out that DAT runs some of its own systems on Win2000 and, altogether, has been extremely impressed by the new operating system's stability.

DAT is also providing ongoing support, as the rest of the company has not yet adopted Win2000. "We had some resistance to Windows 2000 from the Going Places' support people," Greenhalgh admits, "because, when we started in September 1999, Windows 2000 was still very much a product for the future and they were wary about putting a beta release on a live system. We were able to get them to accept the risk by taking on responsibility for support, even though we're based 400 miles away, and that risk has been justified, because we've had no problems."

At a group level, Airtours is still evaluating Win2000 and has not yet made a decision about when to introduce it across the group, although it has been impressed by the performance of the few standalone applications, such as the interactive TV service, and the small number of client-side implementations it has implemented so far. "Our early experience shows that it's more stable than NT or Windows 9x on the client," says David White, Airtours' director of group IT.

However, says White, the group wants to take a co-ordinated approach to the introduction of Win2000, especially given the potential benefits of using Active Directory Services to create a coherent directory and addressing structure across the group. "At the moment, we're using mainly NT at the local area network level, with each site running its own domain, and that makes sharing information difficult," White explains. "There is the potential with Windows 2000 to resolve those issues, so we're trying not to let people run away with local implementations that would be difficult to unpick and make it hard for us to reap the benefits later on."

When it comes to the interactive TV service, the launch has been extremely successful. Going Places is already ahead of its volume targets for e-mail enquiries, having had several hundred contacts even on the day the service was launched, despite the fact that it had not been publicised. The Win2000 application should now help the company to turn those enquiries into sales.

Carbusters.com

www.Carbusters.com was created when leading independent UK car importers Import Marques got together with Which? Online, the Internet arm of the Consumer's Association. Import Marques collates information from a network of affiliated car importers on their stocks of new, UK-specification European and Japanese cars. This database is indexed by manufacturer, model and specification and also includes information on import prices and lead times. Import Marques and Which? Online agreed to offer the benefits of Import Marques' service to Which? members, as part of the Which? 'Great British Car Rip-off' campaign against allegedly inflated UK car prices.

With the help of Web developer Intuitiv Internet Services, Carbusters.com project manager Raj Bedi created a Web site that allowed users to interrogate the car database for price and delivery information on specific car specifications and manufacturers. Customers could then begin the process of placing an order using an online form. The site used the Active Server Page technology within Microsoft's Internet Information Server, running on Windows NT Server 4.0, to process online forms and query an SQL Server 7.0 database.

This first site was initially made available only to Which?'s 10,000 members. Following a successful launch in November 1999, when the system coped well with modest levels of traffic, Which? and Import Marques decided to make the site available to the general public.

Intuitiv consultant Cormac Murphy realised that the infrastructure put in place to support the initial private site would need to be improved to cope with the demands that would be placed on it when it went public. He could have stuck with NT 4 but decided to evaluate Win2000 because, he explains, "it was billed as providing significant benefits over NT 4 in terms of reliability and scalability."

According to Murphy, load tests quickly established that an Internet Information Server running on Win2000 could cope with high volumes of traffic. He adds that evaluation of various pre-release versions of Win2000 on a variety of machines and other sites being developed by Intuitiv had already demonstrated that it was a very stable operating system. Intuitiv therefore had no hesitation in porting the existing carbusters.com systems onto Win2000. The launch date for the public version of carbusters.com meant Intuitiv could move straight to the release-to-manufacture version of Win2000, running on a 600MHz Pentium III server with 512 Mbytes Ram.

When the revamped site was officially launched on 28 March this year, amidst a huge media blitz, it had to cope with 5 million hits a day in the first week, settling down to around half a million hits a day in the longer term. Even under this kind of pressure, Murphy says, the site coped effortlessly, without any dip in performance, and proved extremely robust. Overall, he says, Win2000 represents a very cost-effective solution for high-volume Web sites.

On top of that, the close integration between SQL Server, Internet Information Server and the operating system helped Intuitiv to create the kind of data-driven site carbusters.com was looking for. Bedi points out that carbusters.com is also likely to benefit in the future from the fact that Win2000 incorporates other new technologies such as extensible mark-up language (XML).

Murphy adds that moving to Win2000 "has even made hosting and maintaining the site easier for us, with tools for monitoring site traffic and server performance. This has allowed us to provide Import Marques and Which? with ongoing feedback as to the popularity of the site and means we will be able to pre-empt any future problems before they arise."

Carbusters.com has also benefited from Win2000's compatibility with NT 4. This made transferring the application to Win2000 extremely quick and easy, while carbusters.com has been able to retain its original NT 4-based back-up servers to mirror the main site and provide a 'hot swap' facility.

According to Murphy, Intuitiv "hasn't needed to make special arrangements to make sure the main and back-up servers communicate properly and we are confident that the back-up servers could step in if any problems with the primary server hardware were to arise."

University of Leicester update

The University of Leicester was the first UK customer to deploy Win2000 in a production environment. Computer Weekly has previously brought you details of the University's experiences in deploying the terminal services version of the new operating system, when rolling Win2000 out to staff desktops and to student machines in open access and specialist laboratories.

The phased introduction of Win2000 over the past year is progressing quickly, with the new operating system now available on more than 1,450 machines. The University is currently using a mix of release-to-manufacture, release candidates and Beta 3 versions of Win2000, although it hopes to move all machines to a single version in the longer term. There are now more than 5,600 registered users, with around 760 users at peak log-in, and this number is expected to rise when the new academic year begins in September and all students switch across to the Win2000 service.

Although the new operating system is proving a strong foundation for delivering student computing services, Leicester has encountered a number of issues as its use of Win2000 advances. In particular, the University has had negative experiences when attempting to support Mac users from the same service as PC users. This capability was seen as a major attraction of Win2000 but, according to Peter Burnham, assistant director of the University's Computer Centre, has created two major resource issues. First, holding profiles in a Mac-enabled filestore causes significant delays in logout. Second, the Mac service creates an index of all Mac-enabled files which is retained in memory on the server; as the number of files has grown, the size of the index has caused memory problems. The University is therefore considering developing a separate filestore for Mac users.

The University has also decided to store users' profiles separately from their main filestore quota. Burnham explains that the Win2000 quota system makes no allowance for the requirement when saving profile updates for temporary access to extra disk space totalling twice the user's current profile size. The university has set its default filestore allocation at 25 Mbytes, but a significant number of users have profiles of 8 Mbytes, because some applications insist on storing information within the user profile. Since users have other files in their allocated space, there is insufficient room for the profile to be rewritten and profile updates are lost on logout. Burnham adds that the separate disk allocation for profiles will have a ceiling of 8 Mbytes per user and that the University will actively look at replacing software which insists on storing information in user profiles.

Case study: Dulwich Preparatory School

Goal

To provide the latest technology for pupils and staff while minimising the support burden on a small IT team

Why Win2000?

  • Offers a Windows 98 desktop on a thin-client infrastructure

  • Allows the same desktop to be run on thin and fat clients

  • Allows admin tasks to be delegated to users

  • Minimises the support burden on a small IT team

    Obstacles overcome

  • Acquiring Win2000 skills and understanding implementationissues especially relating to Active Directory Services

  • Minor issues with third-party software compatibility

    Conclusion

    Stable desktop solution that can be administered easily by a small IT team

    Case study: Going Places

    Goal

    A stable and robust server to support a browser-based workflow system

    Why Win2000?

  • Tight integration between operating system and Internet

  • Information Server and Com+ components providing workflow functionality

  • Stability and robustness, demonstrated during testing and in other systems run by developer DAT

    Obstacles overcome

  • Resistance from the client-support team to basing a production system on a pre-release operating system, overcome by developer DAT assuming responsibility for server support

  • Short timescales for development and implementation, tackled through reuse of components from previous projects and use of the Com+ components in Win2000

    Conclusion

    Win2000 has proved a robust platform for the back-office operations of a new service

    Case study: carbusters.com

    Goal

    To implement a robust and scalable Web server platform capable of supporting a very popular site

    Why Win2000?

  • Greater reliability and scalability than the NT 4.0 implementation hosting a previous version of the site

  • Compatibility between Win2000 and NT 4 made porting the Web site straightforward

  • close integration between Internet Information Server, SQL Server and Win2000 supported creation of a data-driven site

    Obstacles overcome

  • Rigorous stress testing to ensure Win2000 lived up to its billing

    Conclusion

    A robust platform able to withstand five million hits a day when the site was launched, with no drop in quality of service


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    This was first published in June 2000

     

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