How to Start a Windows Vista Pilot Deployment

Thinking about deploying Windows Vista® in your organization? Some of the benefits of upgrading include better security, a desktop search feature that makes it easier for users to locate the information that they need, better support for mobile users, and lower management and deployment costs.

As tempting as it sounds to start deploying Windows Vista immediately across your organization, you should follow standard information technology (IT) best practices to conduct pilots to specific groups first. This guide is intended to give you an overview of how to successfully manage a pilot program that provides the best experience for pilot users and helps to provide positive project justification to business decision makers in your organization.

Assess the Environment

The first step in your pilot deployment is to ensure that computer hardware, and the applications that your company uses, are Windows Vista compatible. Even if you are not planning to deploy Windows Vista broadly, you should perform this type of assessment so that you can budget and plan for an eventual migration.

Microsoft provides several free tools that can assist you in this process. You can use the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 to inventory and provide compatibility data for all the applications that your organization uses. Likewise, you can use the Windows Vista Hardware Assessment solution accelerator to inventory the computers on your network and determine which ones are ready to run Windows Vista. While you are gathering the tools you need, every IT pro working on the pilot should download the Business Desktop Deployment (BDD) 2007 solution accelerator for Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft® Office system. You can find these tools and other resources on the Windows Vista TechCenter.

Select Users for the Pilot

The next step is to determine who will participate in the pilot. Often, the best way to begin is to disqualify users who are not well suited to the program.

First, you can rule out those whose computers do not meet the recommended hardware requirements or contain frequently used applications that are not Windows Vista compatible.

Next, disqualify those users who have mission-critical job functions. While nothing is likely to go horribly wrong with the deployment, there is always the chance that an issue might occur. If something should go amiss, you do not want it to prevent your company from doing business. For the same reason, do not include an entire department in the pilot. A better approach is to include a few computers from each department so that the pilot includes a representative cross-section of the company.

Now that you have narrowed down the selection pool by deciding whom not to include, whom should you choose? Select users who will receive the greatest benefit from upgrading to Windows Vista. Often, that means mobile users. Many organizations have an initiative to deploy disk-encryption software to mobile computers, and deploying Windows Vista gives your mobile computers the protection of Windows Vista BitLocker™ Drive Encryption.

If you do include mobile users in the pilot deployment, consider how they will use their laptops. Some users simply use mobile computers as desktop replacements, whereas others are road warriors. Do not include users who spend a great deal of time on the road—supporting them while you work out deployment kinks can be difficult.

Every company has employees who are enthusiastic about technological advances as well as those who are intimidated by those changes. Typically, the more enthusiastic users will provide the best feedback about the deployment. Therefore, you might consider allowing users to opt in to the pilot. If you decide to allow opt-ins, it is a good idea to require the users to obtain consent from their supervisors. In doing so, you reduce the chances of accidentally including a user who performs a crucial job function.

Plan the Pilot Phases

Unless you work for a small company, deploying Windows Vista to all your pilot participants in one stage could lead to less-than-optimal results. A better approach is to implement the pilot deployment in phases. Plan a proof-of-concept deployment, followed by first and second pilot phases.

Proof of Concept

The proof-of-concept deployment will be your chance to see firsthand what will happen during the pilot. Ideally, you should set up some computers to match your company’s standard configuration, and then test your deployment plan against those computers. Because the proof-of-concept deployment occurs in a lab environment, you can test your plan without the fear of affecting production computers.

Keep in mind that deploying Windows Vista to these lab computers is only half the job. You then need to test the computers to make sure that Windows Vista runs well on them. One option for testing these computers is to let members of the IT staff use Windows Vista computers alongside their Windows XP production computers and to try performing day-to-day tasks on the test systems.

After you have tested the proof-of-concept deployment and verified that computers running your standard configuration work well with Windows Vista, you can begin the first phase of your pilot deployment.

Phase One

The goal of the first phase of your pilot deployment is to introduce Windows Vista to the production environment in a limited capacity. Focus this phase on the help desk or other members of the IT department. The purpose of this phase is to validate your deployment method, so you can limit your deployment to 25 or fewer computers. Because of the limited scope of the deployment and the technical competence of the participants, you should be able to complete this phase within a week.

As in the proof-of-concept phase, be sure to analyze the outcome of the phase-one deployment and make any necessary adjustments to the process. Part of your analysis should involve reviewing help-desk calls from program participants. This will help you figure out which issues you need to resolve or anticipate prior to implementing a larger-scale deployment. Further, these calls will help you begin building a help-desk knowledge base of possible issues and end-user experiences with Windows Vista. After you have completed the analysis of the first phase of your pilot deployment, you can proceed to the second phase of your pilot deployment.

Phase Two

The second phase of your pilot deployment will include a greater number of computers than the phase-one deployment, but refrain from deploying Windows Vista to the entire pilot group at one time. Rather, deploy Windows Vista to small groups of users at a time, analyzing the results and refining your deployment technique between groups.

As you develop your plans for each phase of the Windows Vista pilot program, be sure to take each department’s calendar into account. For example, you would not want to deploy Windows Vista to the finance department at the end of a quarter.

Prepare the Infrastructure

After you have planned the stages of the pilot deployment, it is time to plan the method that you will use during the deployment. The BDD 2007 solution provides guidance and tools for deploying Windows Vista desktop systems. Using the BDD 2007 solution, you can perform a Zero Touch Installation (ZTI) or a Lite Touch Installation (LTI). You can learn more about the various BDD 2007 deployment options in the BDD 2007 guidance and on the BDD 2007 Web site.

You can initiate a Zero Touch deployment without any interaction required on the client computer. This is the best option for organizations that have the required infrastructure, such as Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM).

You can initiate a Lite Touch deployment, which requires less backend infrastructure than a Zero Touch deployment, by running a script or an executable on the client computers. Without using BDD, manual deployments using CDs or systems preloaded with Windows Vista remains an option.

Windows Vista requires you to activate its volume media licenses through a new procedure called Volume Activation 2.0. You can perform this activation by using a Multiple Activation Key (MAK) or the Key Management Service (KMS). Follow the guidance on the Windows Vista Volume Activation Technical Guidance Home Page to determine which option is best for your environment. Be aware that the KMS option works only when you have 25 or more computers running Windows Vista.

The final step in preparing for deployment is to use BDD 2007 to create a master deployment image. This image should include any applications that you want to globally deploy as well as any supplementary drivers that might be necessary. You can deploy this image to participants—as soon as you are sure that those participants are ready for the pilot.

Provide the Necessary Training

Before you begin the deployment, make sure that everyone involved has the proper training. The IT staff performing the deployment will need Windows Vista training. So will the help desk staff. Microsoft offers numerous training classes and certification exams on Windows Vista and related topics. For current offerings, visit the Microsoft Certifications Overview Web site. In addition, look for frequent Microsoft events and webcasts, designed to teach IT professionals about a variety of topics.

Be sure that users participating in the pilot deployment are aware of changes to the user interface, and show those users how to perform common tasks in Windows Vista. The Enterprise Learning Framework, a free tool that helps corporations develop a training and communication plan for employees during Windows Vista and 2007 Office system deployments, is a good resource.

If you are a Microsoft Software Assurance customer, you might be eligible for some additional help. Depending on which products you licensed, you might qualify for Microsoft Desktop Deployment Planning Services (DDPS), a 1- to 15-day engagement with a consultant trained in deploying Windows Vista and the 2007 Office system. To determine whether you qualify, check the Software Assurance benefits comparison chart.

Work Around Issues

During the course of the pilot deployment program, you might discover unexpected incompatibilities with some of your applications or devices. Such issues do not mean that you must abandon the upgrade. There are several techniques that you can use to work around these types of situations.

The first thing to do when you encounter an incompatibility is to determine whether an update is available for the application. Major changes to security and networking in Windows Vista have made some legacy applications such as firewalls and virtual private network (VPN) clients incompatible, but most software vendors have published updates on to make their applications Windows Vista compatible. Such updates might solve your problems. The Windows Vista Application Readiness Web site is a good resource for determining whether Windows Vista compatibility updates have been released for various applications.

If you do not find any updates for the application online, consider contacting the manufacturer directly to enquire whether an update is in the works and if so, when it will be available. Alternatively, you might find a competing application that offers Windows Vista compatibility. Other possible workarounds for incompatible applications include running the applications on a terminal server or in a Microsoft Virtual PC environment.

If you find yourself waiting for an application update to be released, consider moving forward with the Windows Vista deployment in departments that do not use the incompatible application. Likewise, a discussion with department managers might reveal that few people, if any, actually use the application.

Evaluate the Success of the Pilot

After you have rolled out Windows Vista to all the pilot program’s participants, you need some way of gauging whether the pilot was successful. The criteria for a successful pilot may vary from organization to organization. In some companies, success might simply mean that Windows Vista is up and running with no adverse side effects. In other companies, it might mean that the pilot program has produced a business justification for deploying Windows Vista to the rest of the organization.

A business justification for deploying Windows Vista typically means that the benefits of the upgrade outweigh the costs. This justification might come in the form of lower support costs or the ability to achieve a specific goal, such as regulatory compliance.

Lowered support costs as a result of fewer calls to the help desk can be a compelling justification. Expect an increase in the number of calls immediately after the deployment, then a decrease in the number of calls through the duration of the pilot. You can use the pilot deployment program to gauge the average number of support calls before and after the upgrade.

Another possible justification is lowered deployment costs. Windows Vista images do not have to match a specific hardware abstraction layer (HAL) the way that earlier versions of Windows do. This means that you can create a single Windows Vista image for your organization, rather than having to maintain multiple images for different hardware configurations. As your organization acquires new types of hardware over time, you can dynamically add drivers for that hardware to the image, rather than rebuilding the image from scratch. These factors can greatly reduce deployment costs.

You can also look at the benefits to end users. Can they find their documents more easily? Do mobile users have a better experience? You can survey users in the pilot group to get this type of information.

Documenting the business benefits your organization receives from Windows Vista is a critical step in getting executive support for the wider deployment to ensure that you get the resources you need to carry out the project smoothly.

Piloting is an iterative process. With each iteration, increase the number and types of users until you are ready to upgrade all the existing computers to Windows Vista and keep Windows Vista on any newly acquired computers.

About the Author:

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Exchange Server, and has previously received Microsoft's MVP award for Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals. As a freelance technical writer, Brien has published approximately 4000 articles over the last twelve years for a variety of technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at