Win2K: When to Move?

If you live in a Windows NT world, the move to Windows 2000 will be the biggest change you’ve experienced since you first installed this operating system. In particular, figuring out how to deploy Active Directory, define intelligent naming hierarchies, and reorganize domains will be a major undertaking. And try as you might, you can’t avoid it.

But you can put it off. I believe most customers should wait as long as possible to upgrade their domains to Windows 2000. There are a couple of important reasons for this. First, the longer you wait, the more time you’ll have to understand all the new technologies this system contains. The number of innovations is huge, so don’t underestimate the magnitude of the task. More important, organizations that wait longer can benefit from the experience of pioneers. Nobody really understands yet how to best deploy Active Directory, for example, and acquiring that knowledge is likely to be a trial and error process. Letting someone else suffer these trials, then benefiting from their knowledge -- if only by hiring the same consultants they paid to figure it out -- is a good idea.

Realistically, though, putting off Windows 2000 will be hard. Hardware manufacturers will begin shipping it on new workstations and servers. It’s bound to infiltrate your environment. And for software vendors, the attraction of building applications that rely on this new system’s features is likely to be very strong, too strong to resist in many cases. If powerful users in your organization want those new apps, refusing to upgrade to the operating system version they require will become untenable.

So what should you do? One key point to understand is that Windows 2000 workstations and member servers should work quite well in a Windows NT 4 domain. Microsoft knows that people can’t upgrade everything at once, so those systems will happily emulate their older cousins once they determine that the domain controllers they’re accessing aren’t running Windows 2000. True, some NT 4-based applications and tools may stop working; new operating systems have a history of causing this kind of thing. But you don’t need to face the real pain of the move -- Active Directory -- just because some workstations and servers run Windows 2000.

The fundamental act in moving to Windows 2000, the one that will force you to bite down hard on the upgrade bullet, is replacing your Windows NT 4 domain controllers with Windows 2000 domain controllers. Deciding when to make this change is the most important part of deploying the new system. If you’ve already got some Windows 2000 workstations and member servers in the domain when you do this, realize that they will all begin behaving differently at this point -- they will figure out that they’re in a Windows 2000 domain and act accordingly. Having a large installed base of systems suddenly act differently is not the most comforting thought for administrators. Yet in many organizations, I expect this to be the reality because Windows 2000 will first show up piecemeal on workstations and servers.

Regardless of when you plan to upgrade, the most practical approach for everyone is to begin planning now -- right now. Expect to put a good deal of effort into the process, especially when confronting the political problems that defining directory structures will bring. Be as prepared as possible, as early as possible, to deploy Windows 2000, but put off doing it until it makes business sense. Unless you’re a masochist or a dedicated early adopter -- very similar things, now that I think about it -- suffering the pain that comes with being the first to install a complex new system is unlikely to improve your life. The reason to be prepared, though, is that you don't know when you’ll be forced to make the move. Once this happens, the worst possible situation is to do it under an imposed and overly tight schedule.

The transition to Windows 2000 is a significant undertaking, one that will eat up a good chunk of your resources for a while. For most organizations, the best path is clear: Be prepared to make the move, but put it off as long as you can.

-- David Chappell is principal of Chappell & Associates (Minneapolis), an education and consulting firm. Contact him at