Ubisoft gets its game on with XP upgrade

Ubisoft Entertainment develops computer games, but for the company’s Montreal office, desktop computers are more than just a game.

The Canadian operation – the largest subsidiary of Montreuil-sous-Bois, France-based Ubisoft

– has some 1,000 desktop computers, used largely by games developers who run high-powered software and demand a lot from their PCs. In February, the Montreal facility was also pinpointed by the company as a major centre for future development projects and announced plans to add another 1,000 employees to its staff.

Until recently, Ubisoft Montreal ran an assortment of versions of the Windows operating system, from Windows 98 through NT 4 and Millennium Edition to Windows 2000.

To get away from that fragmented environment and ensure compatibility with all the application software the company uses, Ubisoft has completed an across-the-board upgrade to Windows XP Professional.

“The main purpose was to be compatible with all the tools that we’re using,” said Patrick Fillion, technical support manager for Ubisoft in Montreal. But security features and some system administration capabilities in XP Professional are helping the company as well, he said.

For instance, Windows XP’s System Restore capability makes it easier to roll a PC back to a previous state if a software installation runs into problems or some other misfortune befalls the system. (System Restore is also offered with the Millennium Edition.)

System Restore takes regular snapshots of critical information such as the Windows Registry, so that it can restore the system to its last known good state, explained Elliot Katz, senior product manager, Windows client, at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont. Snapshots are taken before the Windows Installer utility built into XP begins installation of a new application, and also whenever the system is rebooted and once daily while it is running. System Restore can roll the system back to the last snapshot, without affecting users’ data, he said.

“We save a lot of time with System Restore,” Fillion said. “Previously, on 2000 or on NT 4, it was almost impossible to restore a computer to its previous state.”

Fillion said XP also gives Ubisoft some added security features.

Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm that specializes in following Microsoft and its products, said Windows XP offers significant security improvements over previous Windows releases if customers upgrade to Service Pack 2, an upgrade released last year. “Microsoft did some substantial work to harden the security,” in Service Pack 2, Cherry said.

Among the improvements in Service Pack 2, said Katz, are the fact that Windows’ built-in firewall is turned on a set to no-exception mode by default, so the user must take action to allow any traffic to get past the firewall, and an improved attachment manager that better guards against viruses and other malicious code received in attachments to e-mail messages.

Another added safeguard in Windows XP is Windows File Protection, which will not allow users – even those with administrator privileges – to erase critical system files.

Fillion said many of the software packages used by games developers at Ubisoft require administrator privileges to operate, so “most of our users are administrators locally of their workstations … so they can do everything, they can install everything.”

Apart from improved security, Cherry said, Windows XP “is just more resilient. It tends to have a lot fewer problems requiring reboots.”

Fillion said the upgrade to Windows XP took almost a year, because Ubisoft combined the operating system upgrade with hardware upgrades. Developers at Ubisoft are typically using machines with dual 2.8-gigahertz Intel Corp. Xeon processors and one to two gigabytes of memory, he said.

The greatest challenge in completing the upgrade was validating all the software Ubisoft runs for compatibility with XP, he said.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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