Canadian enterprises mull XP upgrades

Migration to the Windows XP operating system may be slow at first, according to some of Microsoft’s largest Canadian customers and industry experts.

Microsoft will officially launch XP in Canada on Thursday. For the first time, a Microsoft OS will share the same kernel for both home and enterprise editions. XP is derived from the Windows 2000 kernel, which means home users will see an appreciable difference in performance over predecessors like Windows 95, 98 and ME. Corporate users already on Windows 2000 will have to look for specific features within XP to determine the value of an upgrade.

“There are some key specific features in Windows XP that are attractive, but basically going to Windows XP from Windows 2000 would be considered a minor upgrade,” says Erik Moll, XP marketing manager for Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada Co. “You’ve already done the major upgrade going from NT 4 to Windows 2000.”

One corporate user in the midst of that upgrade from NT to 2000 is the Royal Bank. Right now, XP just isn’t a consideration, says Olav Hanrath, manager of integration. The bank began its upgrade to Windows 2000 about two months ago, and has completed application testing procedures and installed features liked automated billing.

“The benefits that we would get out of XP, we don’t see that it would outweigh the cost of redoing the work we’ve already done with Windows 2000,” says Hanrath. “I probably wouldn’t (upgrade) for a while. There would have to be a really compelling reason — a feature that I have not seen that I require. But otherwise I haven’t seen anything in there that jumps out at me.”

Telus will roll out XP to 45 of its Western Canada retail locations in order to demonstrate the company’s new voice-over IP service, but there are no immediate plans to install the OS on its 30,000 corporate seats. “We have such a diverse application base that still have pockets that haven’t gone through the 2000 conversion,” says Patricia Green, senior desktop manager for Telus Enterprise Solutions. “We’re not in a position at this point in time to start rolling over our seats to another operating system. We’re probably a year away from our next operating system upgrade.”

As a matter of course,Cynthia Farren, a Pleasant Hill, Calif.-based consultant, recommends her clients wait at least six months after a product’s release before considering an upgrade. “As we all know, these products go through a lot of testing, but it always seems that a good six months after they’re out, we start seeing the bug releases come through,” she says.

Hanrath is content to stay on a Windows 2000 platform for the foreseeable future, in part because the OS has an established track record. “Windows 2000 has the maturity of a service pack being released for industry adoption. I know what I’ve got coming to me as I roll it out,” he says.

But XP’s value can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, says Farren, depending on the size of the organization and the status of its IT infrastructure. Some of her clients are evaluating XP with a view to an eventual upgrade, but likely not for another year. Larger companies may be able to postpone an OS upgrade by dictating to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) which OS is pre-loaded onto new desktop hardware, she says.

Microsoft has attempted to push its business customers to at least a Windows 2000 upgrade through a controversial licensing program called Software Assurance. The program has raised some fees as much as 107 per cent, according to the Gartner Group, but in order to qualify for the program and its upgrade discounts, users must be on “current” versions of its products by July 31, 2002. (The original deadline was Feb. 28.) Microsoft has said that both XP and 2000 versions of software will qualify as “current.” Hardware vendors began shipping the XP OS preinstalled in September; Windows 98 and NT 4 will no longer be distributed to OEMs in July.

Microsoft’s new licensing position has Roman Coba, Loblaw’s senior vice-president of information services, seeing red. Coba says he can’t see a compelling reason to upgrade from the NT and 2000 systems the Canadian retailing giant currently has in place, but the Software Assurance program has put him “between a rock and a hard place.” Microsoft needs to “throw that into the garbage and come back to us with something that’s viable as opposed to trying to take a cash grab year in and year out,” he says. “When you have over 18,000 seats, that becomes a little bit of a problem.”

According to Rob Enderle, an OS specialist with Cambridge, Mass-based Giga Information Group many users may postpone new purchases for as long as possible due to a rough economy. “Demand has shifted from operating systems and PCs . . . to putting money beneath your mattress,” Enderle says.

“At this time, we’re not monitoring a great deal of demand for the product (XP). Those people who are purchasing it will likely find some of the less-known features of the product compelling.”

Stand-out features that may be of interest to corporate users are improved support for 802.11b wireless applications and enhanced security features, says Enderle, adding that an XP upgrade is best accomplished on new XP-ready hardware rather than trying to upgrade the software on a current machine.

According to Moll, the XP system is easier to troubleshoot than previous versions of Windows via a feature called Remote Assistance. It allows a user to set a chat session with the helpdesk, then have IT support correct errors remotely by taking control of the desktop.

Ultimately, though, it’s the home users that will benefit the most from XP through access to the 2000 kernel. Industry pundits point to a delayed upgrade for corporations.

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