The sorry story of Finance’s Windows Vista fail


opinion When I was reading through a large request for tender document issued last week by the Federal Department of Finance and Deregulation, I found a couple of items that made no sense and still don’t.

The document itself dealt with plans to upgrade the department’s network infrastructure to remedy single points of failure in its existing infrastructure — as well as planning for the likely deployment of an IP telephony platform. It was all standard stuff for a large government department in 2010, and I didn’t give it a second thought.

But then when I got to page 21 I found something interesting.

As is often the case in RFT documents, the department had listed its core applications and technology platforms so that bidders for its contract could get an idea of what its internal IT systems looked like. Most of it was standard stuff — Windows Server 2003 and 2008, EMC, Symantec, Citrix Xenapp and so on. Par for the course.

But what really caught my eye was the listing that Finance’s desktop fleet was based on a Windows Vista (Service Pack 2) standard operating environment.

Now for a government department to be running Vista is itself an oddity. Almost all of Australia’s public and private sector skipped Vista. Despite Microsoft’s claim that the operating system sold well, in actual fact it was broadly ignored by Australian corporates. One of the only organisations known to have upgraded to Vista is the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

When I contacted the department to find out more, I received an even more curious answer.

“Finance deployed its Vista standard operating environment (SOE) to 1,870 PCs and laptops commencing in September 2009,” said a Finance spokesperson. They added that the desktop SOE had been redeveloped to meet business requirements — with Vista being “able to meet the current business needs”.

There’s just one problem with this apparently rosy picture.

A month before September 2009 in August, Microsoft had already released Windows 7 to MSDN and Technet subscribers. And the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) build of Windows 7 was issued in late July. In late October, Windows 7 was released to the general public.

After Vista was released, I and a number of other journalists spent quite a bit of time determining that very few large organisations would upgrade to the platform, as it did not present significant business advantages over XP.

But as I and others noted as early as January 2009 when the beta of Windows 7 came out, Microsoft’s newest operating system addressed most of Vista’s weaknesses and was destined to be one of Redmond’s greatest. It was also clear that — as several early adopters have since chronicled — Windows 7 would bring significant enhancements to Microsoft’s desktop deployment capabilities that would allow large organisations to easily roll out the software en-masse.

But Finance appears to have ignored a fact that many other organisations realised — it just wasn’t worth deploying Vista, with a much-improved Windows 7 just around the corner.

It remains unclear whether Finance will eventually upgrade to Windows 7. “Finance redeveloped its SOE to meet business requirements. Vista was able to meet the current business needs. Any future move to Windows 7 or some other platform will be decided on a value for money basis, taking government procurement policy into account,” the department’s spokesman said.

There is also another troubling fact revealed in Finance’s network tender. The document revealed that the department in total kept some 388 servers — 214 being physical and 174 virtualised, with more than half being located in its production environment in the John Gorton Building in Canberra.

But again, one little detail caught my eye. Just 32 of those servers run any form of Unix — with the remaining 356 being based on Windows.

When asked about the disparity, the department spokesperson said Finance selected its server solutions “on a value for money basis”, emphasising it was a “business decision”. “That is why the fleet combines both Windows and Unix,” they said.

The only problem with this statement is that it’s hard to see — unless you are really a Microsoft fanboy — where Windows would cost *less* than one of the Unix variants, particularly the open source Linux platform. My experience has been that using Microsoft software is often more convenient than using Unix alternatives, and often there is more of a partner support eco-system. But cheaper? Not really. Usually it costs more to go with Redmond.

It’s also hard to imagine, no matter how you try, how a major department like Finance could almost completely ignore Unix in favour of Windows. Is Microsoft’s software really that much better than the Unix rivals? So much better that it should have a ten to one ratio in the datacentre? I don’t think so.

Setting these particular problems aside though, the prevalence of Microsoft software in the server environment extends further through Finance. The department lists Windows Server, SQL Server, Systems Centre Operations Manager, Office Communications Server, Office 2007, Exchange 2007, Sharepoint 2007, Active Directory and Systems Centre Configuration Manager among its platforms.

As the Uniting Church in Melbourne found when it migrated to Windows 7, having a consolidated Microsoft back-end like Finance does, really aids the Windows 7 upgrade, with the desktop and the back-end combining in a wonderful synergy.

So why, if Finance is such a strong Microsoft shop, didn’t it plan ahead for Windows 7?

What makes the question especially troubling is that although Finance currently doesn’t appear to have a chief information officer, it’s not exactly bereft of senior IT strategy advice — within its ranks is housed the Australian Government Information Management Office, which coordinates IT strategy across the entire Federal Government.

I would have imagined that — given AGIMO only recently negotiated a whole of government contract with Microsoft — that the group would have paid a closer eye to what was going on on its own desktops. Does this desktop SOE mean that AGIMO itself is running Windows Vista?

If I was one of the Department of Finance’s several thousand staff right now, I would feel ripped off. In late last year the department obviously had a perfect business case to migrate to Windows 7. Instead they chose Vista — an operating system that only one month after it deployed it, would be woefully out of date.

With no Windows 7 migration on the horizon, who knows how long the poor Finance staff will be lumped with Microsoft’s unloved, immature and ignored Vista dog — while all around them, Government staff in other departments will be migrating upwards.

Image credit: johnsu01, Creative Commons


  1. Dude!

    Plenty of gov. departments are using Vista. Once service pack 1 came out it was adopted (with some reluctance of course). One problem was that hardware manufactures stopped supporting XP on new machines.

    As for Windows servers costing less than Unix – I use Unix pretty much 100%, but if you are running MS SQL Server or .NET applications then sure it makes sense.

    The prevalence of MS software probably has more to do with the success of MS corporate sales rather than any technological factor: Microsoft, the new IBM.

    • If you can name some Government departments using Vista I’d be happy to report them, Nick — but I don’t know of many. Almost all departments that I have spoken to over the past few years have stuck with XP and are cautiously advancing Windows 7 plans.

      I think the prevalence of MS software isn’t so much sales as it is having the complete stack. A number of IT managers have pointed out to me recently that there is a lot of value in having your database, communications software, collaboration software, server platform and so on with the one vendor — especially if your desktop is well. You really can tie these products together nicely in the MS space at the moment — so it’s hard to escape going full-MS once MS gets a toehold on your infrastructure. I think it’s more this factor than sales.

  2. This seems a little….. one sided.

    RE: Moving to Vista instead of waiting for Win7. The move was probably already a long time in the planning. I know of some corps that recently have/are about to move to IE7 as their standard browser.

    The rest of the article is taking a much too simplistic look at this IMO, especially the Win vs Unix server points.

    • I agree with you that there are corps still moving to IE7 — notably CommBank:

      But given that Finance had a year to plan for this migration, and it was the year in which Windows 7 was winning plaudits, I fail to see how the move is justified. They could have saved themselves a lot less pain by waiting a few months and then upgrading to Win7 instead of Vista.

      As for whether or not the Win vs Unix section is a simplistic argument, I would agree — if the article was too long, you all wouldn’t read it ;) However, I do think a ten to one Windows to Unix server fleet is unusual. Don’t you?

  3. Not really that surprising. Stupid, yes, but surprising no. Corporate IT people cling to the philosophy that they have to deliberately stay one big step behind what’s new so that by the time they’re implementing a system, all major ‘issues’ (if not even bugs) are known about the software and there are workarounds in place by their network of support companies. It’s essentially an institutionalised version of “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

    There are still plenty of organisations running Windows XP on desktops, and even deploying new desktop fleet refreshes with Windows XP, simply because it’s the devil they know. (Again, stupid in many ways, but unsurprising.)

    I actually really despise this rationale, because it means tying the WHOLE organisation (i.e. every person outside of IT) to older and less functional technologies, simply because IT wants to cover its arse as much as possible in terms of mitigating incompatibility risks.

    However your argument that Microsoft giving businesses early access to Windows 7 in Sep 2009 should have meant that Finance deployed 7 instead of Vista in that same month doesn’t really hold water no matter what — it usually takes at least months for a corporate IT department to complete testing of all in-house apps, servers and systems (printers etc) against a new OS. In most cases it takes years. Even if Windows 7 is basically just a beefed up version of Vista, you couldn’t in good conscience roll it out instead of Vista until application compatibility testing across the organisation had been completed.

  4. True — you’re right, Dan. I have no doubt that Finance’s Windows Vista move was at least partially based on the rationale that because Service Pack 2 of Windows Vista was out, the O/S must be more mature than the first release version of Windows 7.

    And the application testing thing is also a big one — in larger shops it would take months and months — even a year — to get some of this right. For the banks in particular it is a nightmare scenario.

    However, I still think Finance should have taken the opportunity to look ahead and plan. It was obvious at the time they were deploying this that Windows 7 had a massive advantage over Windows 7 — it was known that it was more compatible and more stable than Vista. Much of the application testing stuff can be gotten around these days with the use of virtual machines — and you don’t even need to buy VMWare — you can always use Microsoft’s own (free) solution.

    Sure, it might have taken Finance even up to six months to deal with the change to Windows 7 instead of the change to Windows Vista. But a little bit of foresight around mid-2009 and some ‘listening to the wind’ would have saved their users a whole lot of trouble. When you consider that desktop refreshes happen in Govt on 3-5 year cycles, it is worth getting this right.

  5. And fanning the fire….. I’d be willing to challenge the “open source” is cheaper argument. Cheaper at licensing time, maybe, but the hidden cost of a lot of that tech, is you need people who are really at the top of their game to implement and support it. Especially in an environment like a big government department. Engineers to competently install and run an MS shop are cheap and plentiful. Salaries are a mongrel to deal with in a budget because they are old school and ‘everybodys’ watching them, but software licensing can frequently slip under the radar.

    And while I’m soap-boxing (have I mentioned how much I love this site), open source is a big gamble in systems with 10’s to 100’s of millions of dollars riding on them. If a software layer shits itself then I want the ‘sleep at night’ comfort of knowing I can pick up the phone and bitch slap the company that wrote it, until they fix it (orgs like Red Hat who truly do provide enterprise grade support excepted).

    You ever tried to bitch slap someone in a user forum…. ;-)

  6. Hi Renai,
    No comments on the desktop, just the server part you referred to.
    I spent less than 12 months working for one of the larger fed depts (I came from private and went straight back to private after this short stint).
    Most of the guys (all contractors) making the decisions on what gear they wanted the outsourcers to run were in their 40s-50s, and had very little (ie no) experience using OSS. I remember one Friday wearing a LINX (London Internet Exchange) anniversary party shirt and being asked repeatedly “LINX is that free software, isn’t it?!” Sigh…
    To them, the mindset was “if they give it away free, it must be rubbish”.
    I think you can relate most decisions to go Microsoft over Open Source back to the old axiom “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”.
    P.S.I agree with ahrenm. In the long term, OSS isn’t necessarily that much cheaper than proprietary. It is infinitely better, and should really be sold on that basis. Giving something away for free tends to create a mindset that that is all it’s worth. This is still a stumbling block for VOIP IMHO.

  7. There is a bigger point here worth of investigation….

    In 2008 AGIMO cut a deal with Microsoft to provide whole government licences for a range of products. The deal was worth tens of millions of dollars per year. After the deal was signed, the brass at AGIMO and a few of the federal CIOs went to sleep. It’s now 2011 and a lot of the software (tens of millions of dollars worth) has NOT BEEN DEPLOYED. Microsoft have been paid every year as if all of it is deployed. AGIMO and Minister Tanner got plenty of cudos for cutting the deal back in 2008. But alas no one actually checked if the software was actually being used. The contract (VSA) is up for renewal next year. Maybe Microsoft can sell some more software to AGIMO that will never be used. After all the leases on the Mercedes Benz fleet at Microsoft will be up for renewal at about the same time.

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