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Panelists Praise Vista Performance, Despite the 'Pain'

A Microsoft Springboard Virtual Roundtable last Tuesday examined Windows Vista performance, fielding technical views from some panelists that had actually carried out system upgrades.

The general opinion among the group was that Service Pack 1 for Vista had transformed the much-maligned operating system into an ideal solution for enterprise IT managers.

Mark Russinovich, technical fellow in the Core Operating Systems Division at Microsoft, hosted a seven-member panel of industry experts. It was the third session in a Microsoft series that features live, online discussions about Windows Vista.

Ironically, the seven-member panel spent much of the time (over an hour) discussing shortfalls -- hardware limitations, driver support, and setup and misconfiguration issues -- that have plagued Vista installs.

Despite those frustrations, the real problem is user expectations, which form the core of misconceptions about Vista, according to panel member Michael Boyd, a platform systems engineer for a financial services organization.

"A lot of user experience with Vista has to do with what you expect from it," noted Boyd in his opening remarks. "If you're expecting to deploy it on four-year-old hardware and have it operate to your expectations, it's not going to operate well."

Hardware platforms and drivers have hindered Vista implementations in the past. However, the key to success for IT administrators is to introduce Vista with new hardware, according to panel member David Straede. He added that IT admins need to make sure that the builds are optimized for the desired platforms. Straede's experience with Vista included a large deployment for a law enforcement organization.

Straede cautioned against upgrading machines containing older drivers.

"One of the key things we discovered in the boxes we tried to upgrade was that they actually picked up those old drivers and the machine would be practically unusable," said Straede, who serves as a network administrator. "Taking that exact same piece of hardware and making a clean install often made it run flawlessly. Never upgrade; just refresh completely."

Drivers are key. Stephen Rose recommended checking OEM Web sites to make sure all of the drivers are up to date. He said sometimes a product will sit on the shelf six months before being deployed, and, in that time, the manufacturer will have come out with a new driver. An outdated driver increases boot times, battery drainage and response times.

"We found that creating a great install with the latest patches, the latest features and the latest drivers can make a world of difference to the desktop user," said Rose, who also recommended creating a patching system outside the Microsoft patching system to make sure all components within the ecosystem are current.

A panel consensus was reached on staying current with the technologies involved in a Vista upgrade. Users will experience significant performance improvements by understanding the relationship between the software and hardware. They should keep up with advancements from hardware manufacturers.

Matching hardware to workloads by using the right amount of RAM and CPU components was also a concern in migrating to Vista. In the law enforcement install, Straede said that they developed a thin client for police vehicle applications using a slimmed-down Vista footprint with less RAM and some disabled features. However, for desktop applications, they deployed two gigabytes of RAM and a full-feature set.

Boot times surfaced as a key concern among the panelists. They said that some Vista users have complained of six- and seven-minute PC startup times. Those problems mostly stemmed from the use of outdated drivers and older BIOSes, as well as network security and management issues, according to Gabriel Aul, a principal group program manager for Microsoft.

"It's not supposed to take six minutes [to boot up]; it's supposed to take a minute to a minute ten," Aul said. "Some of the things we see contributing to longer boot times are drivers timing out and group policies in corporate deployments. Group policies, and synchronous blocking that slow boot times, are the results of the deployment, not the operating system itself."

One of the big myths associated with Vista, according to the host, is that the operating system deals with physical memory differently between a 32-bit and a 64-bit platform. Aul said that a 32-bit system has a four-gigabyte addressable range, and the problem is that 32-bit systems have to reserve a large chunk -- up to five megabytes or more -- for DMA to the hardware. That means a 32-bit system is limited to 3.5 gigabytes of memory, depending on the BIOS.

Aul said that a 64-bit system has a much larger addressable range and therefore can allocate the available gigabytes to applications. However, performance has an inherent cost when running on a 64-bit system in that it requires more memory. He recommends not running 32-bit apps on a 64-bit system and using more than four gigabytes of physical memory.

He also noted that you should have a workload to support 64-bit computing before using it.

"People are tempted to throw RAM at the problem, but it isn't always the best solution," Aul said. "More RAM is better because it gives you more head space, but if your workload is not stressing two gig, then going to four gig or eight gig is not necessarily going to improve performance."

The panel seemed to agree that in the end it's all about user experience and expectations. For IT professionals, that means a system that adequately supports the enterprise with features and security that make the business processes run efficiently. At the desktop, users may find a new range of "cool" features such as Instant Search and voice recognition that improve their work efficiency, they said.

Vista uses "determinations of performance" to automatically set features to a user's needs and scale capabilities. According to Aul, Vista optimizes a user's capabilities within four or five days of use. That makes boot times faster with each use. You can speed up this process by allowing up to five minutes of idle time between boots, he added.

The panel discussed published benchmarks comparing Vista with XP that have raised issues about Vista performance and its auto-set features. Panel member Ed Bott noted that those benchmarks were established using hypothetical data.

"The best way to do performance benchmarking is to use the tasks that you perform every day," Bott said. "Synthetic benchmarks measure by blasting out tens of thousands of tasks in the background and they are not mapping to anything anyone does in the real world."

One of the popular "urban myths" about Vista, according to the host, is that the system will run better if you turn off its inherent services. Russinovich adamantly discourages turning off these services because "they are a vital part of the system" and turning them off could cause severe damage.

In fact, according to Russinovich, Vista's range of new features with SP1 help the system run more efficiently and use less RAM. One such feature is a super fetch cache, which predicts what the user will do and helps launch apps faster.

The Vista feature-set far extends that of XP, according to panel participants. Features such as BitLocker, Windows Meeting Space, voice recognition and enhanced security are bringing many IT people back to take a second look at Vista.

"I think it was worth it to go to Vista and I think it will be more worth it as time goes on," said panel member Boyd. "As we gain more from productivity enhancement -- the new search feature, added security such as Bit Locker, and deployment mechanisms that are faster and easier -- all of these things will play into our adoption and acceptance of Vista."

"Some of the smaller features like voice recognition are absolutely brilliant," Rose said. "I think there's one feature in Vista that everyone is going to find and say, ‘That feature makes my job, my playtime and my life a little easier.'"

In conclusion, Straede noted that while there was a lot of "pain" in deploying Vista, users now have a secure and stable operating system.

"We now have much more rapid deployment, the group policies are much better, we have restrictions we can put on people that ultimately prevents bloatware and things that suck up resources from getting into the system," Straede said. "As an IT professional, do you really want to recommend older technology when there's something newer?"

Rose agreed, saying that the IT cycle is three years and "if you're not thinking three years ahead, you're not seeing the big picture."

He added that "if you're not thinking 64 bit now for all your servers and PCs, you're not doing your due diligence."

Most of the panel discussion was on "real world" end user experience, but despite the troubles, panel member Doug Miller embraced Vista for IT admins.

"While we've talked a lot about the end user standpoint, when you look at [Vista] from an IT pro standpoint, this is an operating system written for us," Miller said.

To view the complete Springboard Virtual Roundtable on Windows Vista performance, click here.

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