Improvements to core functions such as printing and Terminal Services more than justify a migration to Server 2008 for IT services firm Heartland Technology Solutions
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After testing Windows Server 2008 in a production environment for over six months, IT services firm Heartland Technology Solutions found that the new OS is stable and offers greatly improved printer management and remote access via Terminal Services. Heartland Technology Solutions president and CEO Arlin Sorensen shares his insights on the company’s experiences with the Windows Server 2008 beta and how he expects Server 2008 will help Heartland better support its SMB customers.
If you were paying attention to the media buildup to the Windows Server 2008 launch in late February, you might have heard a lot about Hyper-V and Server Core, two of Server 2008’s most-touted features. Just as noteworthy, if less glamorous, are improvements to the server OS that that make more prosaic system functions such as printing and remote access a lot more reliable and easier to manage. For Heartland Technology Solutions, a firm that provides IT services to a number of small-to-midsized business (SMB) customers, these core improvements—and the productivity gains they bring to Heartland’s IT support staff—are the main reason the company is enthusiastic about migrating to Server 2008. I spoke with Arlin Sorensen, CEO and president of Heartland Technology Solutions, about the firm’s experiences beta testing Server 2008 and how the OS is making it easier for the company to support its remote sites and customers.
Q: As an early adopter of Windows Server 2008, when did you start testing the product? What kind of test environment did you run it in?
A: We first deployed it in July 2007. Internally, we’re running Server 2008 on some HP gear, and two or three of our engineers have been working on our internal deployment. Six of our customers are part of the Microsoft Technology Adoption Program (TAP) program and are running Server 2008 as well, and another three or four of our folks are working with them on that. So we’ve got quite a few deployments across different kinds of environments and about six or seven of our engineers have had experience with Server 2008 in production. We really believe the product is stable enough today to be in production.
Q: Which Server 2008 features most interested you? Were there any that you expected would solve some IT problems?
A: One of the major pain points for us was printing in the Terminal Services environment. That’s been kind of an on-again, off-again struggle for us over a number of OS releases. We have eight locations across five states. Seven of our locations run remotely, on Terminal Services, so we run our business on it. With prior versions of Windows Server, there are a number of workarounds and different ways to make printing more seamless. But in Server 2008, the \[Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services\] Easy Print printer-redirection functionality and a number of print management enhancements have really helped us be more effective at printing. That’s a key feature that we’ve leveraged for some of our clients as well—the ability to offer solid print functionality around Terminal Services and then just the overall print management.
Since Terminal Services is one of our huge applications, another big improvement for us internally was the ability to publish applications to the new Terminal Services Gateway, so we don’t have to have VPN connectivity. We have a lot of mobile employees, folks that work from the road, and managing VPNs is a never-ending task. So the TS Gateway product in Server 2008 really gave us better access and made access \[to network resources\] simpler for our team.
Q: How are Terminal Services 2008 and TS Gateway performing for your remote environments?
A: That’s been a really bright spot. A lot of our customers are using Terminal Services printing. We’re running some branch-office scenarios, and we’re using a number of the different functionalities of the product: the Web access, TS Gateway, Easy Print. But what’s been most impressive to us has been the product’s stability. We participate in an awful lot of beta and TAP programs with Microsoft and kind of expect, certainly, when you’re in the beta phase of the product that things aren’t going to work so well. So we had a little fear and trepidation when we rolled it out, but it’s been rock solid.
Q: Have you used the built-in virtualization, Hyper-V, inhouse or for your customers?
A: We are. We’re running Hyper-V internally. I think Hyper-V is going to change the virtualization landscape. Even though Microsoft has been a bit behind \[** on virtualization\], we’ve gotten along well \[using Microsoft’s virtualization products\] in the SMB space that we serve, where we aren’t virtualizing lots and lots of servers in an environment. Hyper-V is showing the same kind of stability and feature upgrades that the rest of the product is, and we’re really looking forward to having that in our bag of tricks.
Internally, virtualization is becoming a big concern for us. We’ve grown to the point where we have more servers than our environment will support anymore, in terms of heat and HVAC requirements, power, all the environmental problems you face when you have 25 servers in a server room that was designed for a dozen servers. We’ve now migrated to an HP blade server chassis and are using Hyper-V to also help us in that consolidation mechanism. And virtualization will play a big role for us in helping our clients manage their growth and still have capacity.
Q: Based on your experiences using the Server 2008 release candidate, what sort of site or organization would make a good candidate to migrate or upgrade to Server 2008?
A: Folks who are dealing with any kind of Terminal Services environment \[would be good candidates\]. If you’re using Terminal Services at all, there are more than enough features in this next server OS version to justify making the change, no question. If you’re wrestling with print issues, the print management improvements make Server 2008 worth it. Then virtualization—anybody who wants to work with virtualization has got a strong motivation to move to this product. And some of the new management functionality is going to be valuable, particularly for people who are using the Microsoft suite of tools, such as Systems Management Server or Microsoft Systems Center Operations Manager. The integration there is going to be even deeper than in the new product.
Q: Can you gauge cost savings or time savings as a result of the upgrade?
A: We’ve certainly thought about that, and we’ve talked about it internally with my IT manager. He said that Server 2008 is saving him four to six hours a week just in dealing with either access, print, or application issues. It’s a significant time savings that translates into a significant cost savings for us in terms of manpower and in terms of impact on the other end. Those four to six hours a week that he was spending resolving issues are downtime for folks who are trying to be work. And that’s the hidden cost of this kind of thing. Sure, it’s one thing if it takes your IT pro time to resolve issues, but while he’s doing that, there are people on the other end of the wire who can’t work.
Q: That’s encouraging that your IT people can report that their productivity has actually improved after implementing a beta product!
A: Right. As you know, IT pros hate to fix print issues, and they hate to fix access issues, especially when they deal with the same thing day after day. So just the fact that those problems are basically gone today, my IT person can come to work and not have to worry about having six emails in his inbox from end users saying I can’t do this, that, or the other thing… can you help me? So it’s made the job of the IT pro a lot more enjoyable, too.