The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has flagged plans to migrate its 22,000 staff across to Windows 7 machines from December this year, nearly two years after planning for the project began.
The Government agency will deploy the new PCs, equipped with Office 2010, over a six-month period between December 2012 and June 2013 in an effort to beat Microsoft's impending end-of-support for Windows XP and consolidate some 2000 applications.
Among other things, the agency hopes to move away from its reliance on the buggy and insecure Internet Explorer 6 for core applications like its Oracle/Siebel CRM package.
The agency's chief technology officer, Todd Heather, told iTnews the project had suffered “false starts and teething pains” in the early stages of planning, which began in January 2011.
“We had the project in our sight for some time,” he said.
Upgrading and migrating to the newer Windows 7 system was a no-brainer for the agency. Following a massive IT Change Program within the organisation, the ATO shifted from HP-owned EDS to Lockheed Martin for desktop services and contracted a Microsoft consultant to discuss large organisational rollouts.
A business IT steering committee co-chaired by Heather had planned slowly to ensure "business groups in ATO understood what was coming at them".
Despite calls from staff to begin the migration before December, he said the agency was moving slowly through project planning to ensure all applications are compatible or upgraded beforehand.
“We don’t want to start running the migration and getting people to digest the changes during the busiest time in the tax cycle,” he said.
Managing the change
The committee had sought to overcome the a series of perceived migration challenges: Windows was different, the browser was different and Microsoft Office was different.
To help overcome potential teething issues, staff were allowed to download the latest version of Microsoft Office 2010 for home use at a “very low price”.
Heather estimates a few thousand staff took advantage of the offer so they could get used to new features such as the radically overhauled “ribbon” interface in the productivity suite.
Heather also wrestled with a more intractable issue; there were “at least 2000” business-developed applications including Excel macros, VisualBasic scripts and other mission-critical applications that required careful handling ahead of migration to Windows 7.
In November 2011, ATO established the first of two separate test labs to track and check which apps would break, which could be fixed, and which needed to have at least a temporary XP-like environment to function.
The "back paddock" allows end users to log into a remote virtual workstation and try out their macros and applications to see how well they would work.
The initial test lab is built on Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation (MED-V), an enterprise-class product that helps to overcome application compatibility issues with Windows 7.
Some 400 applications have been tested to date but only half actually work under Windows 7 or Office 2010.
“They are using some kind of idiosyncrasy that someone thought was a good way of programming, that turns out not to be supported by Microsoft in the new version,” Heather said.
“We are already finding there are some libraries of older versions of software that Microsoft does not include in their build any more.”
A second, industrial-strength test lab will be established next month to test ATO’s mainstream applications, which it is committed to support.
It has also updated its instances of Siebel CRM to support the new operating system.
Heather said ATO was keen to escape a dilemma of critical applications failing without proper compliance testing.
“We needed to pace the compatibility testing," he said. "That’s the congestion you get when you have products that can only work with certain versions of other products.”
Beyond the rollout
The complete rollout will take between four to six months, on a location-by-location basis. Heather said installations will occur over weekends with support teams bedded down with employees for the two weeks following deployment to iron out any issues.
They will address local configuration changes or last minute fixes for particular software drivers that use certain devices that may not be readily supported.
“It is not just a matter of putting a DVD in the drive and letting it happen," he said.
"Our configuration requires some legacy components that continue to support printers and other devices.”
Inevitably the final result will not reflect all the consumer features of Windows 7.
“We have no real policy against widgets but we don’t want to spend too much time unproductively as well," he said.
“For example, we’d like everyone to use the same calendar, rather have 22,000 flavours on the desktop.”
However Heather understands his users need to be given more choices than may have been the case with previous rollouts.
“We need to let people, within reason, to have their own say about how their desktops look,” he said.
“It would not surprise me if end users started developing their own apps for themselves.”
App store next year?
Any internally developed applications may ultimately be made available to wider staff through a SharePoint-based application store from next year.
“We want those clever people out there who are developing those applications, to register them so we have an idea of what they are and make sure they are being used appropriately and appropriately supported," Heather said.
ATO will promote use of such applications, rather than have people duplicate its functions.
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