This is the second article in my series about the Vista v. Windows XP issue. In my last post I replied to an InfoWorld article by Randall C. Kennedy, who claimed that Vista did not really improve security. Today I will discuss Vista’s new capabilities regarding manageability. The text in italics summarizes Kennedy’s view.
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Vista has a couple of features that improve its manageability, such as the ability to restrict access to external media devices, easy deployment of printer drivers and, most noteworthy, the image-based installation. However, myriad third-party tools also offer those features for Windows XP. That’s why moving to Vista provides little or no ROI from a systems management perspective.
You can find this line of argument in several other parts of the article. The Vista features that are worth mentioning are also available for XP from third-party vendors. Two counterarguments refute Kennedy's claims. First of all, third-party tools usually don’t come for free, at least not for corporate environments. Second, it usually costs manpower to deploy them. Of course, if you already have all the software you need, then Kennedy’ argument is valid. However, next time you pay the yearly license fees for your third-party tools, you might also take into account that you could have had those features for free, if only you had already deployed Vista.
My main critique, however, is that my view, this article hopelessly underestimates those new imaging capabilities. They are indeed Vista’s only killer feature for organizations. I blogged about the technical background of Vista’s new cloning capabilities almost two years ago. I think the reason that many neglect the importance of this feature is because it is difficult to understand that benefiting from it requires completely changing ones deployment techniques. Most IT shops have sophisticated deployment methods, which typically rely on unattended installations.
If you fully embrace Vista's imaging technology, you can often do without scripting, and even software deployment is obsolete in many cases. The fact that you now can create images in a virtual environment is an enormous timesaver by itself. You can add any kind of setting or software to your master image within minutes, then press a button and all machines will have the new configuration including all applications. You have a PC that has a problem and you didn’t find its cause immediately? Just press a button to deploy the latest OS image, and this PC is like new within minutes.
Of course, that might imply that you have to change a lot in your overall infrastructure. For example, you have to ensure that end users can store data only in their user profiles, you have to work with roaming user profiles, you have to invest some time getting acquainted with Wake-on-LAN and, depending on your organization's size, you might need third party software that fully supports Vista’s image-based deployment, and so on. But I think that once you master all these obstacles, you will save much time in the future.
We already worked like this to a certain degree with Windows XP. The main problem with XP is that the number of different images you need tends to skyrocket if you have different kinds of hardware in your network. No third party tool can really help you with this problem. XP was just not designed for imaging. The creation of new images is also quite complicated because you have to work on real hardware. Creating new Vista images with a tool such as VMware Workstation is much more convenient because you can work with snapshots, clone images within seconds, manage a whole library of different configurations, etc.
I believe that it will take quite some time for Vista's new imaging technology to receive the praise it deserves. The philosophy behind imaging-based desktop management is quite different from the traditional approach. Many IT administrators have to forget most of what they have learned about OS and software deployment. Those organizations that already have worked with imaging technology will adopt the new approach faster than those who swear by unattended installations.
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So, yes, Vista will certainly provide ROI when it comes to systems management. But only if you are ready to invest some time to learn what image-based deployment really means.