ATO launches jumbo XP upgrade

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The Australian Taxation Office has begun the mammoth task of upgrading its 20,000 desktop machines and swapping to XP and Windows 2000 Server - a task it compares to swapping engines on a jumbo in mid-flight.

The upgrade is being handled under the ATO's existing five year contract with EDS, which began in June 1999. "We have been working on this for two years," said ATO first assistant commissioner, technology, Peter Wilson. "It is by no means a trivial exercise."

Wilson said the majority of ATO desktops are leased Intel Celeron 400 Mhz machines running Microsoft Office 97 on Windows 95, with servers running Windows NT4. The switch to newer machines and XP, he said, is primarily about system stability.

The ATO has what it calls an alpha site of 50 XP users running now, and expects to have a new office in Adelaide equipped with "several hundred" machines by December.

"We will finish the complete rollout between February and April, after people get back from their Christmas leave," said Wilson. The new ATO machines will be equipped with DVD drives for convenience, but will be subject to the same tight software controls as existing machines.

Once all users are on XP, he said, the ATO will begin to unleash extra functionality. "It does open up the opportunity to open up things around workflow and around collaboration," he said.

The ATO is also changing its domain structure and as it completes the upgrade will switching to Microsoft's Active Directory.

Wilson said one of the main challenges of the upgrade will be managing the ATO's myriad of applications, which he estimated to number about 400. Some run on the desktop, he said, but most are server based.

He said the PC setup rolled out through the ATO in 1989 was a server-based system, with Windows 3.1 demand-loaded on the desktop. "When we went to [Windows] 95 and NT, we tried to mirror that as much as we could," Wilson said.

"We ran into some problems back in 1997, because we found that with the Microsoft network installation of Office, when you put everything on the file server, it killed the network," he said. "So we actually had to deploy large chunks of Office on the desktop, but we still tried to preserve as much as we could as being server based."

Wilson said keeping all data on servers, rather than desktops, has eased the migration.

It is also upgrading its servers on a rolling basis, installing new ones where required and moving existing machines to replace machines that are at the end of their workable life. Old servers will be kept online for a period to ensure data continuity during a transition period, before being moved further down the chain.

Wilson said that the Tax Office is also about to review how Linux could fit into the organisation, saying the ATO has yet to form an opinion about the open-source OS.

He said reduced hardware costs and a contract clause that compels the ATO's outsource agency EDS to revalidate prices as the market shifts are saving the ATO money. "We are paying EDS, on a per unit basis, a lot less now than we were in 1999," he said.

"I think the prices that we are paying EDS are about as good as you will get anywhere."

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