Meadow Green Academy: A Case Study of a Modern OS Deployment, Part 1

If a tool is cumbersome, unwieldy, inefficient, and difficult to use, would you use it? Would you look forward to the experience? Neither would I; so when at the end of last year my son’s Grade 5 homeroom teacher told me that the computers in the school were unreasonably slow, extremely cluttered, and that the students did not look forward to using them, I wanted to see for myself how bad they really were.

The school I’m describing is a small private school in Mississauga called Meadow Green Academy. Class sizes range from 12-20 students with one campus location for students in grades 4-8 and another campus for Junior Kindergarten – grade 3 about 7 kilometres away. The upper school has approximately seventy-five students, a staff of maybe ten teachers, and a handful of administration staff. With fewer than ninety bodies it is reasonable that their computer lab should consist of twenty workstations and a server.

Four years ago the school made an investment in its computers – a server running Windows Server 2003 that is both domain controller and file server, as well as brand new workstations running Windows XP. At the time, the 512MB of RAM in both the workstations and server were quite sufficient. In fact as they were still running Windows XP the specs as I saw them should have run reasonably well. However it would not be the first time computers that were supposed to perform well did not, so I decided to investigate further.

My first thought was a DNS issue; Nine years ago I administered a network where user logon took 10-15 minutes – unreasonable by any measure – and when the Domain Naming Service on the server was properly configured and the workstation network settings were tweaked that logon time dropped to under a minute. I started to doubt this as the cause when local operations (such as loading applications) took unreasonable time as well.

Because all twenty computers presented identical symptoms, I expected the cause would have been central but I was wrong and understood why reasonably quickly. Twenty identical computers with identical symptoms began to make sense when I discovered that none of them had been managed or monitored on an ongoing basis, and considering each was used similarly over an extended period of time it made sense that they were sluggish beyond comfort.

· The hard drives were all full, by which I do not mean reasonably full but rather the free space on each was counted in kilobytes;

· Although some of the systems did have Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, most did not. (Service Pack 3 had been released over a year earlier.)

· Although there was a centralized anti-virus solution in place it was not regularly monitored, and there were a number of infections of different sorts discovered in thirteen of the workstations.

I asked for a meeting with the school’s administration and laid out my findings. There is an old adage saying that the shoemaker’s children go barefoot. I don’t make shoes… but I know a thing or two about information technology. I asked if I could offer my help as a concerned parent, and went to work.

Although I spend most of my time writing and teaching, I am still a reasonably successful IT Professional; I have two principles that I live by when taking on projects:

1. Measure twice, cut once; and

2. If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.

The first of these sayings originates in carpentry; simply put, a good measure of proper planning can save time, money, stress, and headaches. I knew that before I purchased a license or memory chip, cleaned out a machine, patched an operating system, I had to know what materials I had; based on that I could determine what we could do, and what we would need. I first heard the second philosophy from the owner of a security company where I used to work. By profession he was an accountant, and he said it at an otherwise boring and uneventful management meeting. I did not appreciate it until later.

This article is the first part of a series that will take the valiant IT department of Meadow Green Academy from zero to hero over the course of a summer. For the users – students and teachers alike – it is a true Cinderella story. It Is also a textbook case of transitioning the IT of a small business – possibly a small business just like yours, certainly with some of the same pains and needs as any small business – from a cost center, break-fix model to a rational, managed model that makes it a strategic asset to the organization.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that because it is a school it is somehow unique; it is unique, of course, because every small business is, but it also has users who produce work – ranging from reports, schedules, documents and spreadsheets to homework and class assignments. There is a boss that is at the same time responsible for all these users, but also responsible both to them and to their clients (parents). They have standards that have to be met, and, like you, want to get home to their families. Like most of us they want to use their computers as a means to an end, and not be hindered by them. They also want to learn the latest technology and not be stuck in the 90s with yesterday’s technology.

Over the course of the series, I will explain the goals we set, the hurdles we encountered, the opportunities we discovered, and the headaches we endured. I’m going to let you in on a secret right now; I know how the story ends, and it ends well. I will discuss many of the tools involved behind the scenes, as well as the operating systems (Windows 7) and applications that would be installed using those tools. I will even try to give you a glimpse into the discussions we had in trying to choose these tools.

The series is more about the process used than it is about Windows 7, although Windows 7 was the impetus for taking on the project. In the end, it is about how the right technology can help us all to work smarter and not harder with the minimum hardware purchases, the right consultant, and the right attitudes.

This is the story of how Meadow Green Academy became the first school in Canada to run completely on Windows 7, and how it has benefited them.

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