Finding a solution you can live with

Just when you think you can safely move forward, something pulls you back to reality. I was sitting in my office working with Windows NT 5.0 beta 2 when I received an email from a reader who had finally decided to move his 25 servers from NT 3.51 to NT 4.0. That taste of the real world made me sit back and look at some of the upgrade problems IS managers will face during the next 12 months.

The Year 2000 Problem
OK, I'm sure you're sick and tired of hearing about Year 2000 (Y2K) problems, and I know you're aware that you might be too late if you haven't completed your Y2K remediation program. Even if you have aggressively pursued solutions to potential Y2K problems, you are probably still finishing up the application upgrade process to reach Y2K compliance.

Most of you are running NT 4.0 and want to ensure that your operating system (OS) is also Y2K-ready, which means applying the latest hotfixes. The easiest way to get all the Y2K hotfixes is to apply the new Service Pack 4 (SP4). You might want to ignore most of the new applets in SP4 and just apply the latest service pack to ensure that your NT 4.0 systems are running the same level of code. The work you do to prepare for Y2K might limit the amount of upgrading you'll have to do on all but your most crucial applications.

OS Upgrades
Given the Y2K issues, now might not be the best time to make wholesale changes to your desktop and network OSs. Of course, if you're not upgrading to the latest service pack or OS version, one of your competitors probably is. If upgrading presents an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage, you'd better be sure that the advantage is yours. If you run NT Workstation 4.0 in a Novell NetWare environment, you probably know that a new version of NetWare has been available since the end of September. You've had time to evaluate NetWare 5.0 and are probably beginning to bring it online now.

NT users who want to move to NT 5.0 aren't as lucky. The current best guess is that NT 5.0 will hit the shelves by the end of 1999's first quarter (possibly by the end of February). This timing seems less than fortuitous. By the end of first quarter 1999, the Y2K furor will have reached a fever pitch, and most IS personnel will be working long hours to make absolutely sure that they're ready for the coming century. Upgrading NT 4.0 workstations to NT 5.0 might be a reasonable expectation, but the potential problem that migrating your servers and applications presents is quite daunting. At the very least, you might have to do pilot projects and small-scale migrations.

Oh, and those folks running NT 3.51 must upgrade to NT 4.0 to be Y2K-compliant. This requirement leaves you in the unenviable position of possibly having to upgrade twice--from NT 3.51 to NT 4.0 and then to NT 5.0. Remember that Y2K-related problems will begin to crop up before January 1, 2000, and you might not be able to wait for NT 5.0 to ship (and thus skip an intermediate upgrade to NT 4.0).

I'd like to believe that upgrading from NT 4.0 to NT 5.0 will be a smooth process, but the more complex the environment, the more unlikely that hope is. User workstation upgrades to environments with tight controls should go relatively well, but moving servers and line-of-business applications will require careful planning and lots of time.

Keep in mind that moving your network to NT 5.0's Active Directory (AD) means you must carefully plan your infrastructure network design in advance. Advance planning wasn't a requirement when you moved to NT 4.0. Thus, if you aren't familiar with TCP/IP, IP management, and the care and feeding of a Domain Name System (DNS), you have quite a learning curve ahead of you.

Server Application Upgrades
Now, upgrading applications is an area fraught with aggravation, especially if you use Microsoft products. Microsoft is about to release or has already released new versions of all the BackOffice applications (SQL Server, Exchange Server, SNA Server, and Systems Management Server--SMS). From what I've seen of the new versions, they'll make compelling upgrades. If your network infrastructure uses these products, you need to decide when to upgrade. Do you start now and migrate all your applications and get them up and running? Or, do you wait until NT 5.0 ships and update your applications again?

To provide full support for AD, Microsoft will ship SQL Server 7.0 and SMS 2.0 before NT 5.0 ships, and these products will receive a service-pack upgrade 90 days to 120 days after NT 5.0 ships. Thus, you have to test everything again before you deploy the service pack. Companies committed to the SQL Server platform will benefit from upgrading to SQL Server 7.0. However, migrating all the data in their current SQL Server databases, rebuilding all the stored procedures, and ensuring that applications that access the data work correctly are not trivial tasks. In addition, these tasks certainly aren't tasks you want to do twice.

Microsoft has updated Exchange Server 5.5 with service packs and has released additional features. Users can download these service packs and features from Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com). Exchange Server 6.0 (formerly Platinum) will ship after NT 5.0 ships, so regardless of the approach you take, you'll have to perform a series of upgrades.

End-User Application Upgrades
Two words: Office 2000. Office 2000 is complex, adds a ton of functionality and features, and is different enough from previous versions to really annoy your users--not to mention that to make Office 2000 fully functional, you need Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0, which is part of NT 5.0. If you've migrated to NT Workstation 5.0, you'll have a smaller problem than if you haven't already migrated. If you haven't migrated to NT Workstation 5.0, you have another set of concerns. Office 2000 might be the first application available to take advantage of all the Zero Administration for Windows (ZAW), IntelliMirror management, and total cost of ownership (TCO) features that NT Server 5.0 and NT Workstation 5.0 will offer. (For details about the NT 5.0 TCO features, see Mark Minasi, "NT 5.0 TCO/ZAW Update," page 157).

Batten Down the Hatches
I know I haven't touched on quite a few upgrade issues: mixed-vendor networks, custom applications, Web-based systems, e-commerce, or any hardware problems you typically encounter. Unfortunately, you have to address these major OS and application upgrade problems (not to mention the Y2K problem) in addition to your usual day-to-day responsibilities. For the IS professional, 1999 is shaping up to be one hell of a year.

Does a solution to these problems exist? Of course. Every problem has a solution of some sort. The trick is finding a solution you can live with. The average IS department won't receive more money, personnel, or time to solve these upgrade problems. The only solution for most IS people is to maximize use of the time and resources they have.

Take a breath, step back, and categorize every activity you're working on. If you haven't solved your Y2K problems, that's a good place to start. If your business is making organizational changes that are typically unrelated to IS structure, start working on the network layout that you'll need to implement AD.

Examine your options. Don't get tunnel vision and focus on the next great version of some product that's headed down the pipe. Using current, mature, tested solutions might be the ticket to solving your company's pending IS problems. Major OS and server application upgrades and the approaching year 2000 will make 1999 a dangerous and opportunity-filled year for IS professionals.