Win2k Migration: Getting the biggest bang for your buck

Windows 2000 is the answer to many NT shops' prayers. According to users and analysts, the new version of the Windows server and desktop operating system is far more stable than NT. But while there is ample anecdotal evidence that a Win2k migration can improve your bottom line through lower management costs and increased performance, not every migrating organization will reap an equal share of rewards.

"The downside is that you only get the maximum benefit when you deploy a homogeneous Windows 2000 platform, which means you need to deploy it everywhere -- at the desktop, at the server, at the Web server, and at the terminal servers," says Tom Henderson, principal researcher at ExtremeLabs, Inc., an OS and performance analysis test lab in Indianapolis, IN.

For all-Windows shops, experts and early adopters say an upgrade to a Win2k platform lowers the total cost of ownership (TCO) of enterprise computing because it is more reliable, more stable, performs better, and is easier to manage.

"We've definitely seen increased reliability and manageability for our data centers," says Jason Lochhead, chief technical officer at Data Return Corp. in Dallas, which moved more than 750 user sites to Windows 2000 last spring. Moreover, Lockhead says the move has allowed Data Return to keep its operations head count flat for six months and boosted the company's shared Web site SQL server performance response time 30-40% over NT.

Unfortunately such a wholesale move will be difficult for organizations heavily invested in Unix, Linux and Macintosh. "If you're looking for authentication, administration and TCO benefit, that's all something gained largely through an Intel-based infrastructure only," says Henderson. Since Win2k and its Active Directory structure exclude Linux and Unix, he says companies that want to reap the maximum TCO boost will have to compartmentalize those operating systems within their IT infrastructure.

Licensing, hardware and compatibility gotchas

Organizations should also be aware of the tradeoffs involved with licensing. You can take a go-slow approach, migrating workstations over time. But if you wait too long, Henderson says, licensing fees will skyrocket because you will be paying for three different costs at the desktop: The desktop operating system license, which is more expensive than Windows 98; Microsoft's new client access license (CAL); and the user's fractional cost of the server licenses. "In terms of licensing costs amortized over a single user," he says, "the overall costs start to climb."

On the other hand, Data Return's Lockhead contends that once the move is complete, licensing costs play little or no role in TCO. "If you have a lot of big enterprise applications and you try to migrate, say to Windows 2000 and SQL 2000 at the same time, you will incur a pretty significant (up front) cost," he says. "But I would argue that even then, it's probably worth it due to the increase in stability and performance and the better manageability and features."

Hardware driver, BIOS and application compatibility are three other migration "gotchas" that can impact the bottom line. "If you have a lot of old boxes, you need to make sure that drivers and BIOS updates are available for them," notes Lochhead. At Data Return, for example, he says the migration team made sure it did things like flash the BIOS with the latest version and configured the servers with Smart Start to tell them that they would be running Windows 2000. They obtained new drivers to take advantage of new Win2k functionality, and they addressed compatibility of home-grown applications by recompiling code and using latest version Visual Studio service packs.

Two tough nuts: DNS and AD

Building a robust Domain Name Service (DNS) layout can be another serious stumbling block . "There's a lot of confusion around the way DNS works with Active Directory," says Lochhead. "Most people aren't used to dynamic updates for DNS (which is a requirement of Win2k.) And if you don't ensure that dynamic updates are turned on in your DNS box, then the domain controller won't be able to register with it properly, and your clients won't be able to find the domain controller." He says failure to create reverse lookup zones within the DNS layout is another common pitfall.

DNS auditing tools provide a solution to many of these problems, says Henderson. These are applications that examine the DNS, check reverse DNS, and test for other tricks and vulnerabilities. But perhaps the biggest migration challenge is Active Directory itself, particularly for companies with a large number of slow, wide-area links, which can bog down under Active Directory replication, according to David Kearns, a network analyst at Virtual Quill in Austin, TX. Kearns' advice to IT managers is to build "sites" that group smaller offices together and provide each of those sites with local domain controllers. The choice then will be either using bigger WAN pipes (T-1s instead of 56K bit/sec) or adding more administrators to the payroll who can push replication when network traffic is slower. "It's just a question of where you want to spend the money."

The bottom line is that there is no cookie cutter approach for cost-effective AD implementation -- or for architecting any other aspect of the Windows 2000 migration. "You really have to plan and study before the move," Henderson says. "Some organizations will be able to derive more benefit than others. But if you don't study and plan ahead of time, you won't be able to tell which one you are."

Joanne Cummings is a freelance writer based in North Andover, MA. She can be reached at jocummings@mediaone.net.

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