Vista Revisited

I have a confession: I use Microsoft products. There. It’s out. Considering the tone and content of this site, I think I would do well to explain myself: Our company provides web development services – plenty of FLOSS applications in this respect, from development tools and web servers to complete API’s. We also provide consulting and network administration services and it is, like it, or not, a Windows dominated world. I need to be able to provide support that requires very little “research” when a customer calls because Outlook won’t send mail anymore. I need to be able to tell them to go to the File menu and make sure that the “Work Offline” option is not ticked. I also need to be able to walk them through various other troubleshooting steps, even when I’m mobile and I do not have a computer in front of me. You get this knowledge only by using the software on a daily basis. We have several customers with Windows Small Business Server 2003 deployed as well. How does one get solid experience in system administration of this type without hands-on use? I steer my customers toward FLOSS solutions as often as possible – mainly servers and web based technologies. We haven’t seen much in the way of desktop migration, but then again, we don’t deploy a lot of desktops.

In our office, we have one workstation running Windows XP Professional, and a Windows Vista Business with Microsoft Office 2007 box thrown in for posterity. We also have a workstation running Ubuntu Linux, an intranet/development server running FreeBSD (a UNIX derivative, and my server OS of preference), and my laptop – and primary system – with Kubuntu Linux (a KDE-centric Ubuntu distro.), so I can safely say that mixed platform networks can – and do – function seamlessly, when properly configured.

Microsoft does write software with features that are at least less than or equal to FLOSS products. (that statement requires much more qualification than is in within the scope of this post), with the occasional kludge (Windows ME). It’s easy to use and easy to troubleshoot – as is Linux – big market share = loads of drivers. My biggest issue with Microsoft products is their “licensing” model. Now, it’s their code, and they are free to release it any way that they want to, but I tend to think that there is a better way.

Code, like genetics, benefits from a diverse pool of contributors. Limit the number of contributors and you end up with the equivalent of reiterated inbreeding – the longer it goes unchecked, the stupider it gets. We’ve all dealt with companies that issue patches that wreak more havoc than the problems they solve. I’m not just referring to Microsoft, although they have been known to release some doozies – like when an “official” auto-update made some websites error out and not display, just kinda out-of-the-blue; so much for standards! (sic) Microsoft developers then griped when they found out that they would have to release a patch out of cycle to fix this browser buster. Fully test your patches and your precious cycle will be preserved!

Back on May 29th 2007, I wrote of the woes of Windows Vista. The verdict? Gartner Web Development did not recommend business users purchase new computers with Windows Vista installed. The various factors included “legacy” peripheral support; an HP LaserJet that was less than two years old had no Vista drivers available. This lack of Vista supported drivers for existing equipment was fairly wide spread at the time of writing. Another issue that I had/have with Vista is the good possibility that an existing program that you have my no longer be functional. Older versions of QuickBooks (2004 and older), for example, will not work with Vista, although an upgraded QuickBooks installation will read and convert your old data files. Windows Compatibility Mode is supposed to address these types of issues but, I haven’t had much luck getting programs to work in this fashion. Fortunately, Microsoft Virtual PC is a free download now so I can still run an XP Box without much hassle. Virtual PC will install on all versions of Vista but will give complain about a lack of compatibility with versions lesser than “Ultimate” or “Business”. Ignore the nags – they’ll go away and it works just fine.

As of January 31st, 2008, Microsoft will no longer be available to OEM’s and Vista will be shoved upon the masses. The boys in Redmond did extend this date a few more months for the big OEM’s like Dell. This means that within 2 years, there will be significant migration to Windows Vista, at least in my client base, just through new equipment purchases alone. With this inevitability looming ahead, I took the plunge again with Vista. After the previously mentioned laptop/Vista incident, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about changing my primary workstation from something known and familiar into something that looked nice, but just didn’t work. But, if I still want to get good rates for network admin in two years, I’d better bite the bullet and keep my skills current. Here’s the rig:

Intel P4 D 2.2GHz per core
3GB DDRIII (2 1GB modules running in dual channel and 2 512MB modules in dual chanenl mode as well.)
combo drive and DVD player (both IDE)
A WD 40GB IDE Drive
A WD 125GB IDE Drive
A SG 160GB SATAII Drive (boot partition)
An adequate graphics card
Dual 19″ XVGA CRT’s

I popped in the Windows Vista Business Edition into the systems DVD reader and opted for the fresh install. Within no time the machine was rebooting as I bit my nails anxiously wondering if this install would be an all nighter like Joe’s. (It literally took over 10 hours from to first boot to first login – but that’s another story). I soon saw my system pass the point where Joe’s high-end hardware had decided to hang – and breathed a bit easier. The fresh install was going off without a hitch.

Right away, I noticed that I no longer need to make an SATA driver floppy from the motherboard chipset driver disk – Vista saw all drives and hardware just as easily as any Linux distro would. Vista went through it’s entire uneventful install process and then auto-updated until it had it’s fill. There are now more and more drivers too – my printer is now Vista supported, although I still can’t print multiple pages to one sheet of paper, or print posters, or scale images, or… without buying a special program. I can do all of these things with the same printer using the Foomatic driver that I didn’t have to wait for on the Linux boxes in the office fortunately, so I didn’t have to buy any special software.

All in all, the experience hasn’t been all that bad. Other than the slick Aero look, most of the differences are security related. Vista has a sudo-like functionality that was lacking in previous versions of Windows. If you don’t know the admin password, you can’t install anything. This changes the nature of drive-by malware installations, at least to the extent that users will be aware that they just installed something as evidenced by the password that they just entered – anything pre-Vista just did it quietly in the background. Internet Explorer 7 also runs with lower privileges than the user account, greatly reducing the damage that can be done to a system through web-based attack vectors. It’s good to see that someone finally figured out that you don’t need root to surf the internet!

I use Firefox as my default browser and this caused any hyperlink help within other Microsoft applications to throw an error and not display the desired information. Access to help is important for anyone using Office 2007 since even the most common of tasks don’t work the way they did in previous versions of Office. I also changed my default desktop search to Google Desktop, instead of Windows Live. After that little adjustment, I could no longer search my email from Outlook. Thank goodness for IMAP and KMail.

I’d mentioned earlier that the Vista Aero interface looked nice. This is strictly by Windows standards though. Anyone who has compiz installed on their Linux box will be sadly disappointed when they go to move one of those windows with the transparent glass-like window decorations only to find that wobbly windows or even the option to have them – just doesn’t exist. The Vista taskbar does give window previews on mouseover and the window changer does have a nice ring affect too.

I had to jump through a few more hoops to get the shares on the Vista box to play nice with the XP machine – no problems from the Linux boxes though. I guess it will be a while before Redmond realizes that tightening “security” in this manner is really just more pretty decoration.

One thought on “Vista Revisited

  1. [...] Jerry Gartner wrote an interesting post today on Vista RevisitedHere’s a quick excerptYou get this knowledge only by using the software on a daily basis. We have several customers that with Windows Small Business Server 2003 deployed as well. How does one get solid experience in system administration of this type without … [...]

Leave a Reply