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IT managers ponder Windows XP upgrade

IT managers are kicking the tires on Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP operating system as they plot PC upgrade plans.

No sooner had Rick Kelley made the painful decision to migrate his division's 4,500 desktops from Windows 95 and NT to Windows 2000 than he had to stop and consider Microsoft's latest, greatest operating system: Windows XP.

It took an entire year of intensive testing and a lot of convincing before Kelley, desktop and asset manager for the Orlando, Fla.-based Missiles and Fire Control division of Lockheed Martin, felt the time was right to start migrating the division's desktops as each finished its two- to three-year life cycle. The migration to Windows 2000, which began in February 2001, is about one-third finished, with completion scheduled in about two years.

Kelley and thousands of information technology managers like him are now facing an even more daunting decision: whether to halt migration to Windows 2000 at some point in favor of a direct upgrade to successor Windows XP. Microsoft promises that XP, scheduled to be released this fall, will be even more stable, have more robust security features, and be more reliable than its predecessors.

But many are withholding judgment. Kelly wants his engineers to dig into the operating system in another extensive round of testing.

"The engineering environment alone has more than 200 applications in use, many of which had to be reworked for the Windows 2000 environment," he said. "We'll have to go through the same detailed process with XP, and it could take as long as a year unless there are less compatibility issues than there were moving applications to Windows 2000."

Engineers at PeopleSoft, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based business software company, are facing a similar decision. The company has been in the midst of porting a large portion of its thousands of desktops and laptops to Windows 2000 since early 1999, with the goal of creating a mixed Windows 2000 and NT environment.

"We have a very aggressive plan to migrate our domain structure and working environment to Windows 2000, and throwing XP into the mix makes it more complicated," said Erik Beer, a workstation engineer in PeopleSoft's IT Engineering group.

"We would need to see some sort of tangible return on investment before we would move to a completely new operating system," he said. "For us, that means things like better manageability, improved stability, less systems crashes, better application support, and better power management for our laptops. It remains to be seen at this point whether XP can provide that functionality."

Tricky timing
Part of the problem, said Dan Kusnetsky, vice president of systems software research at IDC, is the awkward timing of XP's potential release. By following so closely on the heels of Windows 2000, Microsoft is putting many corporations in the untenable position of having to decide whether to switch to Windows XP midstream.

"Organizations tend to not just adopt new software, but to take the time to test it with their applications and procedures, gain some experience with it, and then start rolling it out in a very measured and careful way," Kusnetsky said. "Because of that process, the adoption of Windows 2000 Professional and Windows 2000 Server has been relatively slow.

"If you are a chief information officer and you have just decided that the benefits of upgrading to Windows 2000 are worth the expense and pain, and Microsoft starts banging the drum for Windows XP, it might arrest every effort you have to move to Windows 2000."

For many organizations, it's not a question of whether they will migrate to XP, but when. Despite the unfortunate timing, many believe it's simply inevitable.

"You've got two situations: companies that have already migrated to Windows 2000 or are in the middle of it, and those that are just beginning," explained John Minnick, manager of technology development in the corporate IS department of Siemens Energy & Automation. "For the group that has already gone through a substantial amount of upgrade planning, moving to an XP client is more of an incremental upgrade in terms of effort. For the group still on Windows 95 or 98, the amount of effort will be much more substantial, but it can and should be done."

Minnick, who has spent a great deal of time as a member of Microsoft's Joint Development Program for Windows XP, is committed to the new operating system, although Siemens Energy & Automation is staying on target to move its clients and servers to Windows 2000 by September 2002. Minnick says, however, that some divisions will begin implementing Windows XP this fall and others will migrate next year, necessitating a probable change in the business goals of the company.

Beer, on the other hand, said PeopleSoft will wait until the operating system has been officially released and engineers have had time to thoroughly test it. "Technologically, we don't feel we need XP at this point," he said.

Kelley also prefers the wait-and-see approach. Not only does he want to take the time to thoroughly test the operating system, he wants to wait until third-party software writers create Windows XP-compliant drivers for many of the company's applications.

But when he does make the inevitable decision to migrate to Windows XP, Kelley plans to use the same product he is using to help migrate to Windows 2000--Desktop DNA from Miramar Systems, software that helps organizations port existing settings and some data from one operating system to another.

Colleges gear up
For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deeply mired in its first installation of Windows 2000 on a campus that has spent decades as a Unix-only environment, it's simply a matter of first thing's first.

"There are people on campus who aren't too keen on Windows at all, but as we work with them, they are beginning to see that Windows brings us something we don't have," said Danilo Almeida, a systems programmer in MIT's information systems department.

But even Almeida admits it's simply a matter of time before XP enters the equation. In the case of MIT, demand may simply drive the campus in the direction of XP.

"As students coming onto campus have XP on their machines, we'll have to install it so we can handle tech support requirements," Almeida noted. "Windows 2000 will probably end up being the first step toward XP."

The earliest adopters of Windows XP likely will be large companies--organizations that traditionally have been early adopters of Microsoft technology, said Ken Mackin, chief executive of Tranxition of Beaverton, Ore., a competitor to Miramar Systems. Many smaller companies may choose to wait because of the financial and time commitment associated with a major migration, however.

"The planning requirements for installing a new operating system requires guys with titles like software architect, so it's extremely complicated," he said.

It's difficult at this point--before Windows XP has even been released--to determine when corporations should adopt the operating system, Kusnetsky said. But if Microsoft wants organizations to consider adopting Windows XP sooner rather than later, it needs to do everything it can to ensure that the transition path is as painless as possible, which includes ensuring that the most popular applications will run on XP, he said.

"It's not at all clear what the software and hardware requirements will be or what level of procedural and staffing changes will be required," Kusnetsky said. "It's not even clear if current applications and peripheral devices will be supported. Almost everything is still open to question."

Staff writer Karen D. Schwartz reported from Potomac, Md.