February 14, 2007

C.U. Reacts to Vista Release

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“The ‘Wow’ starts now,” software giant Microsoft has said about its newly-released operating system, Windows Vista. However, that may not be the case for the University, as Cornell Information Technologies does not plan to fully support Vista until next semester at the earliest.

“If you have a Windows XP system that is performing satisfactorily and meeting your needs, there is no compelling reason to upgrade to Windows Vista,” CIT stated on its website.

Sunny Donenfeld, director of distributed support at the Office of Information Technologies, CIT’s parent organization, said that the recommendation has been sent out “to an informal list of technical support providers on campus and posted to CIT’s web site.”

Most services delivered as part of Bear Access, CIT’s package of software utilities, are cited as having mild to serious compatibility issues with Vista, according to CIT’s website. Bear Access includes: the SideCar authentication system, Mozilla Thunderbird, one of CIT’s officially-supported mail clients and COLTS, Cornell’s online timesheet program for student and regular employees. However, these compatibility issues will not necessarily prevent use of the Bear Access programs under Vista.

“Most students who run Vista will notice no problems at all with the [operating system],” Donenfeld said. “All the Bear Access applications appear to work perfectly. [However], the Bear Access ‘Salsa’ infrastructure that automatically updates the Bear Access applications on users’ desktops will not work for users that don’t have full administrator privileges. An update/replacement is in the works and will likely be available this semester.”

Donenfeld also said that CIT is currently working on ways to fully support Vista for the Cornell community.

“CIT, as well as IT staff in the colleges, is still evaluating a plan for fully supporting Vista,” he said. “It is expected that by the fall semester, support plans and workarounds for tougher problems will be in place.”

According to CIT’s website, Windows Vista comes with a new feature called User Account Control, which locks out unauthorized programs from writing to protected areas of the hard disk. UAC increases security in the operating system, but also causes problems for programs such as Bear Access, which were designed for previous versions of Windows that did not have these restrictions.

Subscribers to Cornell’s CUTV service are also being advised not to upgrade to Vista. CIT consultant M. Scott Walters said in an e-mail that those who view CUTV on their computers will find their USB hardware incompatible with Microsoft’s new operating system.

“If you choose to upgrade to Vista anyway, you will only be able to watch CUTV using a TV and the CUTV Set Top Box,” Walters wrote. “Please note that the Set Top Box subscription is $45/month compared to $30/month for the USB subscription.”

Microsoft’s Vista, which was the first new consumer release of Windows since Windows XP in 2001, was released to businesses last November and to the general public on Jan. 30. A public testing phase, known as the Customer Preview Program, began in advance of the business release last year. During this phase, curious users and other interested parties, such as corporations responsible for large networks and software developers, were able to download a copy of the operating system and to test it for compatibility.
“The challenge has been that between each [testing version of Vista], Microsoft made significant — sometimes drastic — changes to the operating system,” Donenfeld said. “By the time the final ‘gold’ version of Vista was ready for testing, IT staff had only a short window to determine how common Cornell applications would run on it.”

An organization at Cornell called the Microsoft Vista IT Special Interest Group has been investigating the upgrade from Windows XP to Vista since September 2006. According to the most recent meeting minutes posted on their website, the group recommended holding off on a Vista upgrade for the time being. They said that the CIT HelpDesk is “still in [a] planning phase” for providing Vista support. They also said that the CIT public labs would not be upgrading to Vista “before the summer, and perhaps the fall and beyond.”

The SIG also noted in their recommendation that Vista comes bundled with Internet Explorer 7, “a browser not yet supported for many campus applications.” This browser is also being patched into Windows XP computers via Microsoft’s Windows Update program, although the patch can be disabled or avoided.

Kevin Drake, assistant director of the Cornell Store, said that members of the Cornell community have been taking CIT’s advice to heart. Drake said that so far the store has sold about two dozen copies of Vista and a “handful” of new computers with Vista pre-installed, a number which he described as “relatively slow” for a new release.

Drake said that there have been a “fair number” of questions about Vista from prospective buyers. He explained that store staff has been explaining the “key compatibility issues” to those who ask.

Microsoft has made four versions of Vista available for sale to the general public: Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. A fifth version, Enterprise, is available to businesses and corporations. All versions except Home Basic come with a new user interface called Aero that CIT said may be too demanding even for systems meeting the minimum system requirements.
CIT has thus recommended that users intent on upgrading use the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, a free utility distributed by Microsoft, to determine which version is appropriate for their computers.

“Systems purchased in the last two years may be Vista-capable but older systems … will most likely have difficulties running Windows Vista so you should not even attempt an upgrade without first backing up your system in case the upgrade fails,” CIT’s website states.