Get Home Earlier with Windows Vista
Windows Vista offers systems engineers, deployment engineers, and support center operators a possibility of life outside of work.
By Tony Northrup
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Fewer Support Center Calls
One of my first jobs was deploying and managing a Windows for Workgroups (WFW) 3.11 network. What a nightmare. I worked about 100 hours per week and spent most of that time troubleshooting user problems. In fact, I spent so much time fixing problems with the president's computer that we had to buy her two computers so that one would always work when she needed it.
The worst part about that job was that I was managing only about 25 computers. Nowadays, computers are much more reliable, and administrators are often responsible for more than 100 computers each. Of course, we still have our late nights. Systems engineers who design client platforms tend to get stuck at the office figuring out how to run a legacy application without putting users in the Administrators group. Deployment engineers are constantly maintaining operating system images, and every time there's a software or hardware update, they need to work late to upgrade every image. For those of you who are support center operators, I feel your pain. Computers are much easier to use than they were when I started my career, but users still need to call you when an application hangs or they get a cryptic error message (Figure 1).
Figure 1. What if you are the systems administrator?
Microsoft feels your pain, too, and Windows Vista should soothe it.
The late nights usually start even before you deploy an operating system. First, the platform engineering team has to make sure all the organization's applications work correctly on the new operating system. This is a tough job in highly managed environments, in which users might not have sufficient privileges to run legacy applications without logging on as an administrator.
Systems engineers won't have to spend as much time tweaking permissions with Windows Vista, though, because registry and file virtualization in Windows Vista redirects per-machine file and registry writes to per-user locations if the user doesn't have administrative privileges. So, most applications run properly with only standard user privileges, and systems engineers can develop a highly secure client platform without spending months fine-tuning permissions.
Configuring Windows Vista in Microsoft Active Directory domain environments is easier, too. With Microsoft Windows XP, you can use Group Policy settings to configure most things, but you have to rely on scripts or other techniques to configure things such as wireless networking. With Windows Vista, you can use Group Policy settings to configure just about everything, including the following:
- Removable storage devices
- Wireless networking
- Hardware diagnostics
- Power settings
- All new Windows Vista features
After your systems engineers design the client platform, you need to find a way to deploy the application to all your computers. With previous versions of Windows, most enterprises used a technique called imaging, in which an operating system and applications are deployed to computers as a single file. With Windows Vista, everyone will use imaging, even if you decide to install Windows Vista one-at-a-time by walking to every computer with a CD-ROM in your hand. You won't have to do that, though, because Windows Vista makes automated deployments and migrations easy.
First, the Windows Imaging Format (WIM) makes imaging a breeze compared with non-Microsoft tools you might have used in the past. A single image will work on almost any hardware, without any regional restrictions. So, you won't need to maintain as many images, which should save you huge amounts of time. You can even add drivers, components, and updates to images without starting the imaged operating system, which should save you hours each time there's an update. For a more thorough discussion about Windows Vista deployment improvements, read Jerry Honeycutt's article "ImageX and WIM Image Format".
Fewer Support Center Calls
Every support center operator has been forced to work late at some point because an executive was having problems with his or her computer and absolutely had to get the problem fixed that night. Windows Vista won't make executives less demanding, but it will help you solve their problems faster and might even fix the problem before the executive has his or her assistant call you.
Help files in Windows Vista are much more usable, and almost any user should be able to understand them — even the executives. You can add your own content to Help and Support Center so that users can get assistance with both internal network resources and custom applications. Troubleshooting tools can be customized, and you can escalate unresolved problems directly to your internal support center. Error messages in Windows Vista are more meaningful than in earlier versions of Windows and will help users troubleshoot simple problems for themselves, instead of requiring them to call you.
Windows Vista is designed to fix some of the most serious problems automatically. For example, if system files become corrupted, Windows XP might simply refuse to start. Windows Vista, however, can automatically fail over to a recovery partition. Windows Vista then presents the user with Startup Repair (StR), a step-by-step, diagnostics-based troubleshooter. StR analyzes startup logs to determine the cause of the failure and can automatically resolve many problems. If StR is unable to resolve a problem, an administrator can choose to roll back the system to the last known working state. If StR can't recover the system, StR provides the user with diagnostic information and support options to make troubleshooting easier.
Windows XP, as a platform, has been very reliable. In fact, users who have worked with only Windows XP have probably never seen a blue screen. But they probably have seen applications hang, and unresponsive applications are very frustrating. Windows Vista can't prevent all application problems, but it will reduce unresponsive applications, which will in turn reduce support calls. If a user does have to kill an application, Windows Vista collects more information for error reporting, which developers can use to permanently fix the source of the problem in a future update.
A user once called me to complain that her computer wouldn't start. That's usually the hardest type of problem to troubleshoot, so I grabbed a second cup of coffee and went to investigate the problem. This time, it was easy to fix: She had plugged her computer into a power strip, and plugged the power strip into itself. I explained that the power strip had to be plugged into the wall outlet to work, and she argued with me, saying she had connected the power strip exactly like the one she used at home.
I'm sorry to say that Windows Vista won't eliminate that type of annoying support center call. It can reduce other calls, though. For example, Windows diagnostics can automatically detect and diagnose failing hard disks, faulty memory, degraded performance, loss of a network connection, and problems shutting down. Your support center can collect this diagnostic information with a tool such as Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). This will help you to not only close tickets faster but proactively address problems such as failing hardware before they cause significant data loss.
Remote Assistance in Windows XP has been a huge time-saver enabling support center personnel to connect to a remote user's desktop. Windows Vista makes Remote Assistance even better:
- Remote Assistance is faster, uses less bandwidth, and can function through Network Address Translation (NAT) firewalls.
- Remote Assistance has diagnostic tools built in, and you can run them with a single click.
- You can continue a Remote Assistance session automatically after restarting a computer.
- Two administrators can connect to a remote computer simultaneously — perfect for training or when you need to help someone else troubleshoot a problem.
Windows Vista won't put you out of a job, but it should make your job easier. If you're a systems engineer, you'll find it doesn't take nearly as long to develop a highly secure client platform. If you're a deployment engineer, Windows Vista imaging tools should make your job much easier. Support center operators will have fewer tickets, and the calls that do come in will be easier to fix. If you still want to work late, do what I do: Order a pizza and test the network throughput with a LAN party.
Note Features discussed on this site are subject to change. Some may not be included in the final product due to marketing, technical, or other reasons.
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Tony Northrup, MCSE, CISSP, and Microsoft MVP, is a networking consultant and writer. He has authored and co-authored more than a dozen books, including Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit: Troubleshooting Guide (Microsoft Press, 2005). When he's not on his deck writing, he's traveling and taking pictures for display in a Web photo album. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Erica, and cat, Sammy. You can learn more about Tony by visiting his Web site at http://www.northrup.org.