Friday, April 10, 2009

Do you do Windows?

Word on the street is that Microsoft will end support for XP on April 14th. They will provide security updates for it until 2014. Surely I'll retire before then :-) I don't consider myself to be a Windows hater, but certainly not a fan. Our school district is 2/3 Macintosh, 1/3 Windows on the desktop. We favor Debian Linux on servers but have Mac and Windows there as well. I'm working on an accurate count of the desktop computers right now.

Windows has been on my mind a lot lately. We've been eaten by our first Worm this week. I spent the last week going computer to computer, installing software and virus updates. We spent at least 10 staff days on these "projects". For us, supporting Windows is a difficult (read time consuming) process. Some of this can be attributed to our relative lack of expertise and standard routines with it but a large share of the problem is due to overall:

  1. Expense - requires seat licenses, critical software updates, domain control, Active directory, virus protection, spyware protection, security controls, 3rd party imaging software.
  2. Requirement of a highly consistent implementation - users have to follow and live within policies to a greater degree.
  3. Complexity of configurations.
  4. Inconsistentency in performance - restarts required, fragmentation.
  5. Complications due to hardware variety. The guessing required to provide consistent service.
The Mac has it's own expense. This is the much debated of course. Clearly you pay more up front for a Mac but many of the expenses I have listed above don't exist or exist to a lesser degree for the Mac. This reduces it's cost over time. I have 8 year old Macs that are serving their limited purpose quite well. They are running a modern Operating System. The PCs running Windows will not provide this level of service for 8 years.

While my preference would be to standardize on Macintosh computers, I am not the only one who makes this decision. I have to do my best to support whatever is "chosen". As a tech director I look at 1500 computers and think we'd be better off with a standard desktop for all staff across the district - whether it's Mac, Windows or Linux. Any of them should be supported using standard configurations, management and imaging strategies. If we have to have routines that encompass 3 Operating Systems, we have to be incredibly gifted or crazy.

All that said, what is a "reasonable" diversity? There might be compelling reasons for having Windows in a High School computer lab. A few computer labs would be relatively easy to manage. I think my small staff, along with some dedicated technology teachers, could handle this. But it doesn't make sense to complicate computer support further than this when there is so little money and time to go around.

Given that we have a number of Windows computers. 1, 2, 3, or 4 computer labs in a building, what is good Windows management? We have a small staff. We are willing but short on time. How do we sustain this and provide Windows reliability?
  1. Get a good inventory of the hardware and where it is located.
  2. Select a method for keeping the image of the computers clean.
  3. Keep a library of clean, basic, images.
  4. Find a way to distribute the image.
  5. Find a way to update OS with service packs, virus protection, anti-spy software.
  6. Maintain hardware repairs.
But wait! A number of these computers are donated to us right? Shouldn't we just thank our lucky stars, bow down and put our nose to the Windows grindstone? No one is donating Macs to us. This bowing to "free" computers is at the root of a growing armada of Windows computer. The armada is begging for attention but we have not planned accordingly.

Perhaps there is a place for Windows in our children's education. Let's say that we support a computer lab in each high school. That's 3 labs - around 75-90 computers. Why not buy new Windows computers every 4 years for our labs. We can start with a good image, manage them well, and then retire them to the general building (teachers and mini labs). But (here's the twist) before you send them out to the masses, install Linux on them. Ubuntu Linux for education.

Taking this further, let's put Linux on every donated computer. Any computer over 3 years old could be managed with a Linux image or as a terminal, controlled by a Linux server.

Do we do Windows? Sure. But let's keep this in perspective. This is an age of constraint right? Time to consider what we can afford rather than living on credit right? Time to be practical and sustain our resources as best we can.


tdfoxdale said...

Sounds like a good solution, David. Now, to sell it!