The end is near.
The end of Windows XP as an operating system supported by Microsoft, that is. And agencies are finding that timing their upgrades and ensuring the compatibility of their applications are important steps as they make the transition to a new OS.
Agencies of all sizes and missions, from the government of the Mohegan Tribe to the U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), have made significant progress in their adoption of newer OSs. These agencies generally have focused their transition efforts on Windows 7, although several are testing Windows 8, which offers an intriguing set of features, including a common user interface and several mobility options.
As a federally recognized sovereign nation, the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribe has an independent tribal government, whose 400 employees provide the gamut of local government services to tribal members. An IT staff of 12 manages the government's IT environment, a Microsoft shop with an infrastructure that includes physical and virtual servers and 300-plus desktops. In 2011, the team began the process of migrating the tribe's Windows XP fleet to 64-bit Windows 7.
"With XP's end-of-support date coming, we decided to take advantage of our scheduled desktop refresh to start the upgrade," says CIO Charles Scharnagle. The IT team is spreading out the cost of a four-year refresh cycle by replacing a portion of its hardware inventory every six months.
For the migration, which took less than a year, the tribe took a multipronged approach to hardware compatibility. Building on the base of new Windows 7 machines it purchased, the tribe reimaged its existing 64-bit hardware with the new OS. For "marginal" machines, "we installed additional memory to extend their life, and for hardware simply too old to work with Windows 7, we found a way to replace it," says Dave Shoup, technology manager for the tribal government.
The Postal Service's OIG also timed its XP migration to coincide with a 2011 hardware refresh. Initially, IT required the office's mostly mobile workers to ship their notebook PCs to its Virginia headquarters for scheduled upgrades, where technicians migrated data and settings to new Windows 7 machines, which were then shipped out to users. The agency later streamlined the process by sending new preloaded notebooks to users, and then remotely moving files from the old to the new machines.
"In the grand scheme, 18 months isn't very long for migrating 1,600 laptops, but it was a slow process for the IT staff supporting two operating systems," says CIO Gary Barlet. The OIG office's previous CIO decided the agency could improve the productivity of both users and IT staffers by hiring 10 contractors dedicated to completing the migration. Starting in late 2012, this team shipped new notebooks to everyone who still needed one, remotely migrated files, and then either retired the used notebooks or reimaged them with Windows 7 and rolled them back into the inventory. The agency was able to complete the transition by mid-2013.
No Two XP Migrations Are Alike
Application complexity is a leading challenge in OS migrations, especially when the transition involves a wide variety of software versions. "Organizations that have had the biggest problems with Windows migrations didn't test their application compatibility and remediate problems," says Michael Silver, a research vice president at Gartner. Agencies commonly find challenges with core applications whose advanced age complicates upgrades, homegrown apps with no documentation and mission-specific niche apps that vendors update sporadically. Their options for addressing these challenges include ditching the application, fixing it or virtualizing it.
At the Mohegan Tribe, "we only have about 120 applications," says Scharnagle. "We only had a few compatibility issues, which we were able to overcome pretty easily." The apps that the tribe had to migrate included Microsoft's Dynamics GP enterprise resource planning software and a customer resource management package that houses all tribal data, as well as a number of small applications.
The tribal fire department, for instance, runs proprietary inventory apps whose providers issue infrequent upgrades. For these, the IT team uses XP Mode, which allows XP to run within Windows 7 so users can access older apps. When a developer releases a new compatible version, IT deletes XP Mode from the machine.
At the Postal Service OIG, the IT staff relies on a small virtual XP desktop environment to run a couple of vendor-retired apps that are still integral to the agency's mission. "While we can migrate all physical devices off XP, there are some apps we can't retire," Barlet says. "Some OIG cases take years to close out, so we need a virtual environment that enables agents and auditors to use those XP programs."
Time for an Inventory Check
Another problem that plagues XP migrations, Silver says, is that organizations fail to exhaustively inventory their hardware and software assets.
To get a handle on its asset inventory, the Mohegan IT team used Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager to automate its inventory process, as well as the Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit, which scans hardware and software to identify potential issues. The Postal Service OIG also is deploying SCCM to replace a manually maintained asset inventory database.
The Acclimation Proclamation
Users get attached to their system's interface, a tendency that generally results in some resistance come OS upgrade time.
"There's no question there's a big hop between XP and 7, and now 8 with the Metro interface," Shoup says. With XP, desktop icons, for instance, were readily available; however, Windows 7 is designed to have a streamlined interface, so traditional icons are hidden from view.
But once users get beyond the interface, Shoup says, the way they interact with the two operating systems is similar, with both providing the same basic functionality. Granted, some users love the cool, new features, such as Snap. "But for average users who just want to get into their machine to use their email and other applications, there's no barrier to entry, because they don't need to use these features," he says.
Prior to the transition, the Mohegan IT team used Group Policy and other utilities to make sure everyone had standard icons.
"We actually gave it more of an XP look and feel than a Windows 7 feel, because we didn't want to shock anyone too much," says Shoup.
"It was a pretty smooth process for us," he adds. "We didn't get many calls."
At the Postal Service OIG, users also took to Windows 7 fairly easily, which Barlet attributes in part to the software's adoption on the consumer side. "Many employees use Windows 7 at home, so they've already made the transition," he says.