Georgetown LAW Center CIO Pablo Molina says he’s supporting Vista because students will be using it.
Aug 20 2007

Destination Vista

Universities look for the right time to upgrade to the latest Windows OS.

When Microsoft releases a new Windows operating system, information technology departments realize it is a question of when — not if — they must upgrade, and higher education IT teams are grappling with that issue now regarding Vista.

Higher education is moving slowly but surely to embrace Microsoft’s first new operating system in five years. Some university CIOs are delaying widespread implementation of Vista until next year, while a few plan to roll it out campuswide this fall. More aggressive adopters cite the value of offering the features of the latest technology, such as its new interface and improved search, and the need to support students’ Vista notebooks. Those who favor delaying implementation express concerns about compatibility with older applications and want more time to install hardware upgrades.

Vista’s Vanguard

Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., is fully supporting Vista and will install it on university computers this fall. The Law Center’s CIO Pablo Molina says his campus launched Vista to better support incoming students and found the interface easier to navigate.

“Some people claim that Vista doesn’t offer anything new or exciting, but to my mind the software is easier to use than before,” Molina says. “That’s a big accomplishment.”

As for new and exciting, Molina says Vista has an improved interface, particularly for multitasking.

“We have noticed that students, for example, organize their class notes, check e-mail, chat and do online research at the same time,” he says. “Vista makes it easier to keep several applications open at the same time and to switch from one to another.”

He says other useful Vista features include improved document and file searches, faster remote access to the desktop and streamlined network printer installation.

Another reason for supporting Vista is that students — particularly incoming freshmen who buy new notebook PCs for school — will show up with the new operating system, Molina says. He estimates that up to one-third of students may upgrade at home or purchase notebooks with Vista, and he maintains it is important to support it.

“My take is that people believe IT departments are roadblocks to innovation and progress, and I don’t want to feel like that,” Molina says. “So we’ve been running Vista for months now, we’ve gone through training, making sure network infrastructure can support it, and we’ll be installing new Vista computers in common areas on campus.”

Searching for the Right Time

Other CIOs report that Vista support won’t happen this summer because of competing projects. But that’s fine for those departments that plan on staying with Windows XP and want to use the extra time to better train their IT staffers.

Take Rusty Bruns, for example. The CIO at Charleston (S.C.) Southern University has his hands full implementing a new campuswide emergency notification system. “My project plate is full for summer, and fall is not the time for implementing something brand new,” Bruns says. “And there is a training curve that needs to take place.”

Summer of 2008 will likely be a different story, he says. As academic software publishers migrate to Vista, the university will need to support the new operating system. “We’ll take another look next year and we’ll probably do a pretty large implementation then,” Bruns says. Meanwhile, he says, “I save a year not having to buy the product at the same time I am able to beef up my machines so they have the video cards and the RAM.”

Compatibility concerns also keep Santa Clara (Calif.) University from immediately joining the Vista camp. “We’re simply not comfortable with that, particularly with regard to some legacy stuff we’re still using,” says Santa Clara CIO Ron Danielson. “We’re reasonably happy with XP as a platform. We can run that for another year and let some other people gain some adventurous experiences.”

Danielson recalls that when Santa Clara rolled out Windows XP, there were issues regarding the institution’s Novell GroupWise environment, so he’s been testing Vista PCs on existing applications. “We haven’t encountered anything like we did with Windows XP, but there are enough small things that we are willing to put it off, particularly lacking a reason for not doing so,” he says.

Supporting incoming students, for Danielson, isn’t reason enough. “We don’t promise to make everything work,” he says. “And we do know Vista will work with our networking environment, which is the biggest thing for them. Access to all our administrative services for students is through a Web browser, and that seems to be working fine with Vista.”

Hardier Hardware

Institutions are also waiting to beef up their computers so they can meet Vista’s hardware requirements.

Microsoft recommends an 800 megahertz processor and 512 megabytes of random access memory to run Vista. That is the major reason Dan Tonelli, director of IT support services for Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., plans to wait until next summer to implement Vista. “One of our biggest reasons is that we’ll be doing a refresh of our desktops, and it’ll be easier to deploy it with a new desktop rather than going out and upgrading machines,” Tonelli says.

Tonelli is also concerned about application compatibility, but hardware drives the timing of his plan. Babson’s student notebook program provides new machines to incoming freshmen every fall and, at the same time, replaces those of current juniors. The half of his student population that gets new hardware this year will receive Vista-capable machines, he says, and the desktop refresh schedule will replace public machines with systems that are robust enough for Vista. “We’ve made sure they’re ready for that,” he says. “They have two gigabytes of memory and an 80 gigabyte hard drive.”

Tonelli expects that some students will attempt to load Vista on their machines, but he doesn’t expect that support for the operating system will present much difficulty. “As soon as they have a problem we can’t resolve,” he says, “we’ll reimage the machines so they’ll go back to XP.”

Upgrade Upshot

In this regard, higher ed institutions are no different than their business counterparts. According to Forrester Research analyst Benjamin Gray, many enterprises and smaller businesses are holding off on Vista migration because they are comfortable with Windows XP or 2000 and find those operating systems adequate. He also says companies aren’t feeling much pressure from their users to upgrade — yet — but that will change when users buy home PCs and notebooks with Vista installed. “Until very recently, their employees had no exposure to Windows Vista through their home PCs and haven’t been calling their friendly help desk staff to demand the upgrade at work,” Gray says. “Well, that’s about to change as users are naturally drawn to not only the latest and greatest, but will quickly realize the personalization and productivity benefits that come with Windows Vista,” Gray says.

He points to improved security, reliability and performance as the Vista benefits.

Georgetown’s Molina argues that universities may be in a different place than the rest of the computer-using world. “Particularly in higher education institutions, we should be embracing the latest technologies and helping find ways to use them,” he says. He also says he thinks that offering the newest information technology helps schools attract better students and teachers.

A New Office

Vista isn’t the only new software from Microsoft that IT departments are looking at carefully these days. Office 2007 hit the shelves around the same time as Vista.

Georgetown, which is moving to Vista in the fall, and Babson College, which is holding off on Vista until next summer, are both quickly upgrading to the newest Microsoft application suite. IT people are looking forward to Office’s new interface and use of open extensible markup language file formats, among other features.

“There was a lot of trepidation with moving to Office 2007 and Vista,” says Dan Tonelli, Babson’s director of IT support services. “But the more you look at it and start playing with it, it’s not so difficult. And I think Microsoft has made some great changes to the Office suite with regard to use. People are starting to get excited about it.”

Tonelli says he expects Office 2007 to make its mark on campus a lot quicker than Vista will. “We expect that everyone on campus will be running Office 2007 by mid-September,” Tonelli says.

Charleston Southern University CIO Rusty Bruns says he received approximately 50 faculty members’ requests for Office 2007, so he plans to install it for them with the understanding that training will not be offered for a while.

At Santa Clara University, CIO Ron Danielson expects Office 2007 to arrive on campus next year, about the same time as Vista.

Stalking Leopard

Microsoft isn’t the only technology company issuing a new operating system this year. Apple’s Leopard is scheduled to debut in October and universities are upgrading their Macs in the same manner that they are their PCs. That is, everyone is doing it a little differently, with some planning to go full bore with Leopard as soon as possible, while others don’t plan to support it at all.

The difference lies in whether the universities run Apple software on university machines, and how many students have their own Macs. At Georgetown University Law Center, CIO Pablo Molina says as many as 30 percent of students will tote Mac notebooks, so he’ll support Leopard as soon as possible. At Charleston Southern University, CIO Rusty Bruns says there are essentially no Macs on campus aside from a handful belonging to students, so he considers Leopard irrelevant.

In the middle are schools like Santa Clara University. CIO Ron Danielson says as many as 10 percent of faculty uses Macs, so he’s somewhat interested, but so far doesn’t know enough to make a decision. “We have a briefing scheduled with Apple,” he says, “and Leopard will be one of the topics.”