Dell's new approach to the Vista migration problem

According to at least one Dell official, despite recent debacles with SP1, the business client migration to Windows Vista continues undaunted. A new Dell Client Migration Solution, unveiled this week, includes services and tools designed to ease businesses' migration burden.

Although Windows Vista still isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea, Dell this week rolled out a new set of services and tools "optimized" for organizations moving to the OS that customers who've already made the shift either really like...or really don't.

But who is stepping to Vista right now -- especially in light of recent missteps on the way to deploying Service Pack 1 -- and how will the new "Dell Client Migration Solution" help out customers?

In an interview with BetaNews, Kevin Haynes, Dell's senior manager for product management and marketing, gave three reasons why some of Dell's customers are adopting Vista.

"Some of them pride themselves on being at 'the cutting edge.' Some of them want to stay ahead of the [Microsoft operating system] support cycle," said Haynes. Others want to deploy specific "enhanced features" in Vista, according to Haynes, who cited to Vista enhanced security features, such as User Account Control.

But Michael Cherry, lead analyst with the independent firm Directions on Microsoft, chimed in with a fourth reason.

"There's a certain number of machines that customers are going to replace each year, just in the normal course of things," Cherry told BetaNews. "So here they are, looking at new hardware. The customers consider the compatibility of Vista with their software applications. If they don't see any compatibility issues, they will most likely upgrade to the new OS."

Dell still preloads PCs with Windows XP for customers who prefer XP, Haynes acknowledged. The manufacturer's newly launched Migration Solution could conceivably be used, too, for deploying XP to PC desktops, according to the senior manager.

Since the company's inception, Dell has provided services to customers around installing new operating systems and application on its hardware. Historically, though, Dell relied on its customer to have already done much of the planning in advance.

"Under our old model, customers would come to us after they'd already figured out [application] dependencies and done other [planning] processes. It was then too late [for Dell] to correct things," said Haynes. "In many cases, too, customers hadn't put together baselines of their current costs -- and without that, they couldn't build a business case for migration."

Haynes said Dell first started developing new migration tools for Vista for its own internal purposes. Certainly, Dell already had determined for itself why it needed to make the shift. But this time, during its own migration, Dell realized how much of the process it believed to have been self-explanatory, needed to be communicated to its customers.

So Dell's new migration services, aimed at organizations with 2,500 or more client PCs, differ in a number of ways from its earlier services, for reasons that directly relate to its own experiences with Vista. And because communication is key, Dell is now working with customers directly during migration planning.

One thing that Dell learned right away, especially with Vista, was that customers weren't always giving Dell a "good image" of the OS and applications to be installed during migration, Haynes said. Although Vista also supports traditional imaging tools such as Symantec Ghost, the new OS introduces new technology from Microsoft called ImageX -- part of its Automated Installation Kit, which works with WIM files. That technology can create a bit-by-bit snapshot of an entire, fully deployed Vista environment, complete with the customer's choice of applications.

This time, Haynes noted, the customer's choice has been pretty clear. Most customers who are migrating to Vista are also moving to Microsoft Office 2007, a heftier chunk of software code than previous iterations of the application suite.

The upshot is that, in its new migration services, Dell is using new tools, developed in-house, that are designed to speed and automate either approach to imaging the OS and applications onto PC hard drives.

"Our tools are very slick," he contended. The tools can also be used to customize Vista around "things like your power management preferences, the display you'll be using, what domain to join, and what region of the world you're in," and to encapsulate these customizations into the image before deployment.

Haynes stopped short of finding fault with new Microsoft migration tools such as User State Migration Tool (USMT), telling BetaNews that Microsoft devised its approach with somewhat different goals in mind. Dell's tools are less "script-based" and more "point-and-click" than Microsoft's.

"We've worked with Microsoft throughout the whole buildout," said Haynes. "Microsoft is trying to help automate deployment with some basic tools. An expert might then go in and modify the scripts."

In an assessment done with early customers, Dell found that its new Migration Solution cut migration costs by 62% and deskside time and labor by 88%. In addition, Dell also saw reductions of 70% around "network traffic normally associated with deployments," according to Haynes.

The Dell executive also told BetaNews that the new Migration Solution isn't really geared to upgrades such as SP1. "Ordinarily, customers handle upgrades like that through their usual patch management processes," he said.

But, he added, Dell is certainly willing to use its new service for helping any customers who run into problems with SP1.

Meanwhile, for its part, Microsoft is now offering free phone and chat support to anyone experiencing difficulties with SP1 installation -- a reversal of its usual policy of referring customers who bought systems with Windows preloaded on their PCs to their hardware manufacturers.

"Microsoft keeps saying that the sales of Vista are good. But even if the evidence is anecdotal, it's clear that some customers are continuing to have trouble with it," said Directions on Microsoft's Cherry. "A lot will depend on how Dell packages its hardware and services. If you're Dell, and you've specified some hardware, you should know how to image the operating system.

"It also helps that Dell is controlling the device drivers in the system," Cherry added. "Dell should be able to manage any driver issues, too."

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