07:41 PM
Fredric Paul
Fredric Paul

3 SMBs Illustrate The Different Approaches To Windows 7 -- And Other Top Tech Issues

IT folks from three very different small-to-midsize organizations talk about their plans for migrating to Windows 7, plus how they're dealing with the economy, mobility, and tech support.

Question: What do you get when you put smart, experienced IT folks from an architectural engineering firm, a school district, and a medical technology company in the same room? Answer: You get unique, real-world perspectives on how small and midsize organizations choose to deal with today's most important technology issues, from Windows 7 migration to budget cuts, mobile carriers and handsets, and that old bugaboo, tech support.

At the recent KACE Konference in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet three IT professionals who are dealing with the same kinds of issues now facing many SMBs:

Christopher D. Blake, workstation administrator for the Benchmark Group, a 400-user architecture and engineering firm working for big retail chains out of Rogers, Arkansas.

Tom Miller, senior director of IT for VNUS Medical Technologies, a medical equipment maker with some 313 workers in San Jose, California, which was recently acquired by Covidien.

Rich Battin, computer and network tech and Mac specialist for the Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Among them, these three organizations span the spectrum of interest in Windows 7. In fact, it's practically a Goldilocks and The Three Bears, scenario, with one company jumping in whole hog, another organization hanging on to XP for as long as it can, and the third testing things out before beginning a more cautious rollout.

Benchmark Group Goes All In On Windows 7
Benchmark Group is moving to Windows 7 in a search for key features, Blake says, and because Microsoft will be ending support for Windows XP.

"We were not opposed to Vista," Blake adds, "But it had such a bad rap that we would have been crucified" by the company's users. "Just by Microsoft putting a different name on Vista... it saved me. We all know that, but users don't have to."

Blake says "Windows 7 migration is a big project, with a huge impact on IT, users and customers," but he's so gung ho that he expects his company to run a mixed Windows XP / Windows 7 environment for only 2 to 3 weeks as it makes the transition!

Hanging On To Windows XP
The exact opposite plan holds sway at Academy District 20. According to Battin, "We're not thinking about Windows 7 this year. Dell is continuing to supply us with Windows XP machines for this year."

"I'm sure we'll migrate to Windows 7 at some point," Battin added, but there's no driving factor or feature that makes the transition urgent. He expects the district to run a mixed Windows XP/Windows 7 environment for a while as it slowly replaces aging PCs with new ones.

Unlike the Benchmark Group, "We got a bad taste with Vista," Battin explained, and only 60 of the district's more than 8,000 computers have been "upgraded" from XP. (Battin, a Mac specialist, says the district still has about a thousand Macs in the mix, but isn't currently buying any more.)

Trying Before Buying
At VNUS Medical Technologies, Miller believes in testing, testing, and more testing. Miller started with application-compatibility testing and user training. And he's now sending out surveys to users, asking what operating systems they've used and feel comfortable with, from Vista to the Mac. "We're going to do it anyway," Miller said of the transition, "but we want their support. If we find users don't want to go to Windows 7, we'll have to do some PR." That PR could be handled internally, or with help from Microsoft reps, Miller said.

Another alternative, Miller said, is to "just start giving them machines." VNUS bought home-use licenses and can give it to all employees for just $10 a seat, he added. "We have laptops available, we can let people just go play with it."

Despite his caution, though, Miller didn't appear worried about the transition. "People don't care what their operating system is, as long as it's fast and they can use the applications they need."

Eventually, he hopes to tie the move to Windows 7 to the release of Microsoft Office 2010 in June of next year. "We don't want to have to touch the computers multiple times," he explained. In addition, new corporate parent Covidien is a big Sharepoint user, Miller said, so there are additional advantages to tying it all together. Plus, because it's now part of public company, VNUS has to meet additional compliance requirements, and "Windows 7 offers a more robust security environment than XP."

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Insights Into The Economy, Mobility, And Tech Support

Windows 7 looms as a big issue for many small and midsize shops, but it's far from the only concern. Even larger than technical issues, the Great Recession is affecting everything SMBs do. Or is it?

Economic Concerns Vary Wildly
"We don't actually have a budget!" said Blake at the Benchmark Group. "I try to tell the comptroller every year what I think I'll spend, and I usually exceed that..."

"We are overhead. We know that, Blake added. The IT department tries "to be proactive... in the most responsible manner possible" by becoming a business partner to the company.

The company's PC refresh cycle remains at three years, "but we sometimes extend that and use a 3-year-old machine on admin desks," Blake says. Most importantly, the economy hasn't yet affected the IT team too badly. "We're growing," Blake said. "I added three people this year!"

Similarly, "the economy hasn't changed that much" in terms of purchasing for Academy District 20, marveled Battin. "I'm surprised we've been allowed to keep replacing computers -- our refresh cycle is still five years."

On the other hand, long-standing budget pressures force the district to put out an RFP for new computers every year, Battin said, and cost is the "only" consideration. In the past three years, the district has bought Dell, then HP, and then Dell again. "It's a nightmare for support," he said.

And there are some economic effects. "The computers aren't suffering," Battin said, "but the people are. We lost some IT folks, and they were not replaced."

At VNUS, the recession even has some positive effects, Miller said, driving down recurring costs and maintenance. The company is maintaining its two-year refresh cycle for laptops, which get a lot of wear and tear, and three years for desktops and workstations.

To maintain his budgets, Miller tries to focus the budget on key IT projects that align with corporate goals and executive bonuses.

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Carriers Trump Hardware
When it comes to mobility, I was a bit surprised to learn that carriers trump handsets almost every time.

"We have a Sprint deal," said Academy District 20's Battin, so the district is currently using five 5 distinct BlackBerries, including the Storm. It's also rolling out the Palm Pre, which is available only on Sprint.

At the Benchmark Group, a problematic relationship with its AT&T rep led the company to Verizon. Blake said that company has handed out Windows Mobile devices -- "not because they're pretty or fun, they're horrible devices" -- but because they work perfectly with Microsoft Exchange. He continues to support employees who use their personal iPhones, but offers no BlackBerry support.

For VNUS, the company's new corporate owner is dictating a move from iPhones to BlackBerries, even though it's staying with AT&T. According to Miller, the key for mobile choices are "cost, functionality, supportability, and manageability."

Fighting To Break Free Of "Break-Fix"
The one thing all three organizations share is an aversion to tech support.

"We're not there to fix the printer. Our role is to pick the best printer so it doesn't break," explained the Benchmark Group's Blake.

That seemed to be everyone's goal. "We have a rule, if you spend more than one hour on a machine, it's re-imaged," said Miller at VNUS. "We don't want to get caught up in break fix" with repetitive ongoing issues. "That cost my predecessor his job," so we try to train staff to recognize problems and fix them the first time. That saves money and satisfies the user.

That may sound extreme, but working in an education environment, Battin takes it even further. In high-school environments where students tend beat on the machines, he explained, the rule is "after 15 minutes working on a machine, re-image it!"

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