Thomas College, which bills itself as the only college in the United States to offer guaranteed job placement upon graduation, prides itself on providing students with access to the most current computer software. As such, the college was one of the first to upgrade all of its PCs to the Windows 7 operating system. Coupled with independent adoption of Windows 7 by students on their own systems, the college’s rapid rollout of Windows 7 has delivered improvements in usability, PC startup and shutdown speeds, system responsiveness, battery life, reliability, and security. Meanwhile, the college’s small IT team is benefiting from increased troubleshooting capabilities and 10 percent fewer support incidents, leaving more time to focus on new projects.
Thomas College, located in Waterville, Maine, is a liberal arts college with approximately 1,100 undergraduate and graduate students. The college’s IT infrastructure is supported by a full-time staff of 3 people, who are assisted by some 20 student workers. Of the college’s 250 desktop systems, approximately half are desktop and portable PCs running the Windows operating system. The other half are thin client devices that connect to server computers running Windows Server Remote Desktop Services. The school’s IT team also helps support an additional thousand or so PCs belonging to students.
Billing itself as the only college in the United States to offer guaranteed job placement upon graduation, Thomas College works hard to prepare students for today’s workplace—for instance, by providing access to the latest computer technology. As such, in 2008, the college upgraded all of its PCs from the Windows XP operating system to the Windows Vista operating system. The upgrade delivered significant increases in productivity and security for end users, and reduced the number of system images to be maintained from eight to one.
“When it comes to desktop software, our students are the primary drivers,” says Christopher Rhoda, Vice President for Information Services and Chief Information Officer, who has worked at the institution for 22 years. “Many students buy new laptops in the summer after high school graduation, which means they’ll be running the latest version of Windows when they start college in the fall. We need to teach them using the same technologies that they’ll be using on their own PCs for the next four years—as well as the ones they’ll encounter in the workplace upon graduation.”
With only three full-time staffers, the college’s small IT team is always looking for new ways to do more with less. “Increased IT productivity is another big reason why we work to stay current on new technology,” says Rhoda. “A big part of our daily workload is supporting end-user desktops, so anything we can do to improve security, reduce support calls, and minimize the number of systems to be reimaged leaves us with more time to work on new projects.”
Consistent with its focus on adopting the latest information technology, Thomas College planned to upgrade to the Windows 7 Enterprise operating system as soon as it became commercially available. “While we were happy with Windows Vista, we really liked what we were hearing about Windows 7,” says Rhoda. “All of the positive press really captured our interest so, upon release of the beta version, we decided the time had come to evaluate it ourselves. Given its ease of deployment and many new and enhanced features, our decision to upgrade the entire campus after a short evaluation period was an easy one.”
To evaluate Windows 7, Rhoda installed the beta version on his own PC, which took half as long as the installation of Windows Vista. “My PC immediately became more responsive after installing Windows 7, including faster startup and shutdown times,” recalls Rhoda. “I also liked how the new Jump Lists and Windows Taskbar made navigation more intuitive. I immediately saw many ways that Windows 7 would make me more productive.”
||Windows 7 is definitely making a difference at Thomas College, both for end users and for our IT staff.
Vice President for Information Services and Chief Information Officer, Thomas College
In July 2009, when Windows 7 was released to manufacturing, Rhoda decided to have the rest of his IT department evaluate it, as well as a small group of school staffers. “We chose a half-dozen or so users in different offices and either reimaged their systems or installed Windows 7 as an upgrade,” he says. “Virtually all of the feedback aligned with my initial perceptions, in that everyone found Windows 7 to be more responsive and easier to use.”
Rhoda’s team also used the informal pilot phase to check application compatibility—again with positive results. “We deployed a mix of 32-bit and 64-bit systems in different areas, such as in our computer labs,” says Rhoda. “We found a few applications that didn’t run in a 64-bit environment and simply reimaged those systems using the 32-bit version of Windows 7. We didn’t have any compatibility issues at all with the 32-bit version, which isn’t surprising considering that Windows 7 is built on the same foundation as Windows Vista.”
The pilot period also showed that hardware compatibility wasn’t an issue. “We had absolutely no issues with our current hardware,” says Rhoda. “In fact, Windows 7 ran better on our current hardware than Windows Vista, even with some of those systems being up to four years old.”
Full deployment of Windows 7 began in the fall of 2009, during which IT staffers and student workers used a combination of reimaging and in-place upgrades, both done manually, as time allowed. “Our budget didn’t allow for a Microsoft partner to assist with the upgrade, so we did it all by ourselves,” says Rhoda. “Fortunately, Microsoft provides a wealth of knowledge and tools to guide and assist with these kinds of tasks. The resources on Microsoft TechNet keep getting better and better, and we rely on them heavily.”
Deployment of Windows 7 to all 125 PCs was finished by the last week in December 2009—a few weeks ahead of the schedule, which called for the upgrade to be completed by the end of winter break when a new semester begins. “I don’t know an IT person in education who doesn’t hold their breath on the first day of the semester,” says Rhoda. “By the end of that first day, we knew that our deployment of Windows 7 had been successful.”
Meanwhile, students are rapidly adopting Windows 7 on their own systems, as Rhoda can tell from the log files provided by Windows Server Update Services. “We push out software updates to all computers on our network—both college-owned and student laptops,” says Rhoda. “Log files show that about 25 percent of all 1,100 students are already running Windows 7.”
Server Software Upgrades
Thomas College also is upgrading some of its server computers from the Windows Server 2008 operating system to Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard or Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise, including the servers that support its 125 or so thin client devices. “Windows Server 2008 provided a user interface similar to Windows Vista, whereas Windows Server 2008 R2 has the Windows 7 look and feel,” explains Rhoda. “By upgrading our terminal servers to Windows Server 2008 R2, we’re able to deliver many of the user experience enhancements provided by Windows 7 to the users of our thin client devices.”
The college upgraded its virtualized server environment to Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard with Hyper-V technology, as well. Managed using Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, the environment consists of some 24 virtual machines running on 8 server blades. “Microsoft System Center products such as Virtual Machine Manager and Configuration Manager are integral to our IT management strategy,” says Rhoda. “Virtualization makes our server infrastructure much easier to manage and support, while tools like Configuration Manager enable us to deploy new desktop software with just a few mouse clicks.”
For instance, after the Windows 7 deployment, Thomas College used System Center Configuration Manager to automatically push out additional software programs that were not included in the base image, as well as any application updates that were released after the image was created.
“We use System Center Configuration Manager to inventory hardware and software for PCs and servers, and to advertise and automatically install many applications and updates—including updates to non-Microsoft software such as Adobe Reader,” says Rhoda. “This provides users with the latest versions within a few hours after an update is released. It also helps us keep track of which computers have which applications, which is especially helpful when only a certain number of licenses have been purchased. We also strongly recommend that students install the Configuration Manager agent, which many of them do.”
Through its early adoption of the latest operating system, Thomas College is retaining its position as a college that provides students and staff with the software that they need to succeed. Since rolling out Windows 7, the college has experienced improvements in usability, PC startup and shutdown speeds, system responsiveness, battery life, reliability, and security. Meanwhile, the college’s small IT team is benefiting from increased troubleshooting capabilities and fewer support incidents, leaving more time to focus on new projects.
Improved Usability, Speed, Responsiveness, and Battery Life
The college’s upgrade to Windows 7 has increased usability by making everyday tasks such as navigation faster and easier. “The enhanced Windows Taskbar is a personal favorite because it puts what I want to do right at my fingertips,” says Rhoda. “I can pin programs to the Windows Taskbar for faster access, and can use the live taskbar thumbnails to quickly find the window I want when I have several open. The new Jump Lists on the Windows Taskbar and Start menu are great, too, in that they make it easy to quickly access recently used files.”
Users also like the desktop enhancements in Windows 7, such as Peek, which makes all open windows transparent when the user moves the pointer over the far end of the taskbar. “The desktop enhancements make it easier to work with several windows at once,” says Rhoda. “For example, Shake minimizes all other windows on my screen when I grab one window and shake it. The Snap feature is great, too, making it easy to maximize a window or compare the contents of two windows side by side. When you use your computer as much as I do, little enhancements like these are really useful.”
Users also are benefiting from improved speed and responsiveness compared with the earlier operating system. “We’ve seen significant improvements in the speed with which PCs start, shut down, and resume from sleep state,” says Rhoda. “This is probably most appreciated by students, many of whom carry their laptops around all day. We’ve also noticed that Windows 7 uses memory much more effectively, enabling users to run more concurrent programs or work with larger files before performance is affected.”
Because most students have portable computers, the way that Windows 7 helps extend battery life is also a plus. “The optimizations in Windows 7 designed to reduce power use are a huge benefit,” says Rhoda. “For example, Windows 7 reduces background activities and supports the trigger-starting of system services, so the PC can be idle more often—and when PCs are idle, they use less power. The way that Windows 7 automatically reduces display brightness when users are inactive also helps conserve power. People may not be aware of all the power-saving enhancements in Windows 7, but they’re definitely benefiting from them by being able to use their laptops in more classes before having to recharge.”
Increased Security and Reliability
Thomas College is benefiting from built-in security features in Windows 7 and the Windows Internet Explorer 8 Internet browser (included in Windows 7) that help safeguard users’ PCs—especially students’ own PCs, which are not always protected by the mechanisms that help secure the campus’s network. “When students are behind our firewall, they’re fairly well protected,” says Rhoda. “However, when they go home for break, they come back with all kinds of PC infections. Features such as Windows Defender in Windows 7 and the new SmartScreen Filter in Internet Explorer 8 help keep students’ PCs more secure. Not only is this beneficial to students, but also it reduces the burden placed on our support staff.”
Deployment of Internet Explorer 8 also is delivering a more reliable Web browsing experience. “Tabbed browsing was a great enhancement in Internet Explorer 7, and the new tab isolation and automatic tab recovery features in Internet Explorer 8 further enhance the experience,” says Rhoda. With tab isolation, if a Web site or add-on causes a tab to stop responding, only that tab is affected. The browser itself remains stable and other tabs remain unaffected. With tab recovery, if one or more tabs close unexpectedly, the tabs are automatically reloaded.
Rhoda points to the improvements in User Account Control as another benefit. “We keep school-owned PCs fairly locked down, and the introduction of User Account Control in Windows Vista gave IT staff a good way to work with this,” says Rhoda. “In Windows 7, users don’t see as many User Account Control messages because fewer operating system programs and tasks require approval to run.”
The college also plans on taking advantage of BitLocker To Go, a new feature in Windows 7 Enterprise that extends BitLocker drive encryption to USB flash drives and external hard disk drives. “People on school PCs aren’t supposed to store sensitive data locally,” explains Rhoda. “If they do, we use BitLocker to protect the data. BitLocker To Go will enable us to extend that encryption to removable storage devices, giving us some protection if those devices are lost, stolen, or misused.”
Improved Troubleshooting and Faster Reimaging
With Windows 7, the college is better able to troubleshoot PCs—and, if necessary, to quickly reimage them. “We can reimage PCs with Windows 7 in 30 minutes, which is half the time it took with Windows Vista,” says Rhoda. “The drivers included with Windows 7 are better, too, which means fewer issues to troubleshoot after the image is applied.”
||Time is money, and the way that Windows 7 has reduced support calls by at least 10 percent gives us more time to focus on new projects.
Vice President for Information Services and Chief Information Officer, Thomas College
Rhoda points to the new Problem Steps Recorder in Windows 7 as another useful troubleshooting tool. “End users aren’t known for great detail or accuracy in describing the problems they encounter,” says Rhoda. “The Problem Steps Recorder has been a great help in this area. We show people how to use it, and that gives us the information we need to more quickly and efficiently solve the problem.”
Increased Cost Savings and IT Efficiency
By taking advantage of cost-saving features such as those designed to decrease power usage, the college is minimizing costs. “We are always looking for ways to reduce energy costs, and are making aggressive use of the Windows 7 Group Policy settings in this area,” Rhoda says.
Rhoda also cites the possibility of extending useful hardware life as a potential cost-savings benefit. “We’re always looking for ways to reduce costs, and a delayed PC replacement cycle is one way to achieve that goal …. I’ve heard from some peers in primary and secondary education that Windows 7 has enabled them to breathe new life into PCs that weren’t capable of running Windows Vista.”
To Rhoda, however, the biggest savings is the time savings that the upgrade to Windows 7 has provided for his small IT team. “Time is money, and the way that Windows 7 has reduced support calls by at least 10 percent gives us more time to focus on new projects,” says Rhoda. “I can’t quantify the time savings in dollars, but I can say with certainty that, since the move to Windows 7, other IT projects are getting done at a faster rate. Windows 7 is definitely making a difference at Thomas College, both for end users and for our IT staff.”
Works the way you want: Windows 7 will help your organization use information technology to gain a competitive advantage in today’s new world of work. Your people will be able to be more productive anywhere. You will be able to support your mobile work force with better access to shared data and collaboration tools. And your IT staff will have better tools and technologies to enhance corporate IT security, data protection, and more efficient deployment and management.
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