Guest Column: Best practices for deploying Vista SP1

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Guest Column: Best practices for deploying Vista SP1

Many companies have been waiting for Microsoft to release the first service pack of its latest operating system, Vista, before considering an upgrade to their current desktop operating environment. Vista Service Pack 1 addresses many of the concerns with regards to performance and stability, and application compatibility.

However, Dimension Data decided to stay as up-to-date as possible with its own desktop environment. We migrated to Vista soon after its launch to the market in 2007, and to Vista SP1 immediately after its official release to manufacturing (RTM) this year. We believe it’s worthwhile to keep up to date with any major software vendor’s technologies, if that means there are going to be improvements to your systems’ security, performance and reliability.

We also migrated to Vista SP1 because we wanted to see how well the technology performs in a business environment, and to be a living example to our own clients that the software works robustly in an enterprise. If it works for a company of our size, then it’s a technology that we’re confident will also allow our customers to optimise their own desktop application infrastructure.

Earlier this year I was aware that Microsoft was in the final stages of development of its first service pack for Vista. So we began planning and testing early beta releases with the aggressive goal to deploy SP1 to all of our existing Vista machines within ten days of RTM, which would also make us one of the first organisations in the world to deploy SP1.

It was also important that we moved to SP1 so that we could take advantage of the benefits and improvements it would bring to our users. Things like improvements in file copying times and transfer performance, and reliability enhancements such as coming in and out of hibernation on a machine.

Since running a production pilot in two phases, I have seen some marked improvements in the security and performance, and the overall stability of the operating system itself.

We did a final pilot over ten days because we wanted to roll out the Service Pack swiftly, while not risking the integrity of the Vista machines we support. We achieved this by undertaking an extended pilot and testing process on earlier beta versions of the code over the months leading up to RTM. By the time we got to this final pilot there were no surprises, and ten days was enough for us to trial SP1 with a cross-section of business units and branches, and to cover plenty of different users.

We deployed SP1 across our Vista fleet in an automated way using Microsoft SMS by pushing the package out behind the scenes and allowing the user to choose when to download the application and run the installation, which was useful in particular for our large mobile workforce.

It has been a very smooth upgrade process, and the only major issue we ran into was that users needed to be on their own VPN in their own branch in order to access the Service Pack from their machine.

I concede it’s still early days with our deployment, so we’re continuing to monitor the trends in the nature of our helpdesk calls on Vista to see whether the calls rise, fall or remain static and determine if there are any other issues that weren’t uncovered during the pilot.

Best practices

For organisations thinking about migrating to Vista SP1, here are some of our best practices for a smooth rollout from both an organisational and end user perspective:

  • Do your homework before you upgrade. We investigated the benefits and changes SP1 would bring to Vista. Microsoft also has some good whitepapers and online resources to help you understand the main integration issues SP1 might have with your major business applications and systems.

  • Ensure that all previous versions of Vista SP1 are uninstalled. This is primarily an internal communication issue to staff prior to rollout.

  • Run the deployment in a phased approach. We did a small pilot with seven users and collated information on that group’s main issues with Vista. Then we fixed those issues before the second pilot rollout with 20 users from different lines of business and offices. A phased approached allowed us time to do some heavy testing with a broad range of users from both IT and other divisions. Only when we had this group’s word that SP1 was satisfactory did we deploy companywide.

  • Ensure you have reliable network connectivity and power during the install – for laptops in particular.

  • Push SP1 out in a scheduled fashion to the business, to ensure minimum disruption to your users. Also allow for a two-hour downtime with the install, which cannot be avoided. Most of our staff planned the update into their work schedule, or ran the upgrade from home out of hours.

  • Do a non-interactive install, which means your install will run itself via an ‘unattended’ switch and a ‘warn re-start’ switch, which doesn’t require any user interaction. These are optional switches you can apply to SP1.

  • Have a well thought-out communication plan for your deployment to ensure that your stakeholders understand how it works, what ITS is going to do, and what steps users need to follow to make the upgrade happen on their machines. It’s imperative to be concise in your communication to the company. Tell your staff how long the install process will take. Also include your IT support group’s email and phone number for troubleshooting and advice.

  • Provide screenshots in your staff communication, with simple step-by-step instructions showing them how to allow the install to take place on their PC.

  • Advise your users to do a backup of their critical business data. There is the potential for a machine not to perform the full install if their power or network experiences an outage during the upgrade, therefore potentially corrupting the install. Backups are essential!

  • Have a feedback channel for users to let you know how they went with their install – this allowed us to fix issues quickly. We expected more issues than we got, so the installation went off without a significant hitch. We did have one user with a Cisco VPN client installed prior to the upgrade – he just got asked to reconfigure his VPN to his own location when he did the upgrade.

  • Have a dedicated technical lead to own the testing of SP1. We had a dedicated Desktop Support Engineer who owned the process, from initial testing on our base managed operating environment to the final install of SP1.

  • Have a dedicated service delivery manager, who is responsible for owning the desktop user experience, and managing the smooth delivery of the rollout to the organisation.

  • Leverage your existing Microsoft SMS (System Management Server) or System Center Configuration Manager infrastructure (if you have the benefit of this), which will allow you to deploy the patch via your own network. Companies who don’t have this in place should investigate professional services options to conduct the rollout.

  • Windows Update will also allow for the deployment of SP1. This includes the release of new security patches as well as the Service Pack itself.

Anthony Stevens is Chief Information Officer at Dimension Data. Dimension Data’s David Hinterdorfer, Desktop Support Engineer and Dean Michel, Service Delivery Manager, contributed to this article.

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