From a current IT perspective, a school district has a great deal in common with a large corporation. Nearly every student engages with a laptop or tablet, they often take the machines home with them, and they require the latest versions of a vast range of software. All create challenges for administrators, particularly when deploying a Windows 10 migration.
Cherokee County, Georgia is located 30 minutes north of Atlanta. The Cherokee County School District is the eighth largest in Georgia, encompassing 42 schools and centers, with 6,000 staff serving 42,000 students. The Cherokee County School District IT team currently manages approximately 40,000 PCs, all of which run Windows software. As a Facilitator for the district, I’m responsible for network infrastructure, assisting with Configuration Manager, and Office 365.
At Cherokee School District, we place a great emphasis on preparing our students for the working world by encouraging technical literacy and making available as many educational software tools as we can. Microsoft has placed a great emphasis on educational programs, and we have several early adopter programs in different academic areas, such as Paint 3D and Minecraft EDU. Many of these programs require the latest edition of Windows 10, and for this reason and others, we were quick to implement and complete a full Windows 10 migration of all our endpoints.
We also strive to be as paperless as possible. This means, as a large corporation, there can be any number of important tasks taking place on the local network simultaneously. Including anything from registrations to test submissions, and we can’t run the risk of interrupting them. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic early adopters, but we also strive to be very thorough about testing new technologies before deploying them. In an effort to enhance our students’ and educators’ learning and teaching process, we try to limit disruptions.
Windows 10 provided a perfect example of this potential issue. There’s growing awareness of the impact from the Windows 10 Servicing Model, with its very aggressive update schedule. Before we began our Windows 10 migration, we put this to the test ourselves. We upgraded our small computer lab from Windows 7 to Windows 10 using manual processes and Config Manager. It took 36 hours for 32 machines to finish. Now apply that scenario to 40,000 devices, it would not be feasible to continue with this time-consuming performance. In addition to the lengthy Windows 10 migration, we’d still be looking at regular, potentially disruptive updates through the servicing model.
Clearly, this wasn’t a workable model for an organization of our size. We did our homework and developed a better plan. If you’re looking to initiate your Windows 10 migration this year, here are four key learning points from Cherokee’s journey that may help:
Clear communication with end-users is critical. Windows 10 is a very intrusive update to end-users. Even if you do take advantage of peer-to-peer technology (see number 4), you’ll need to take each user’s device for at least 45 minutes. If you make sure everyone’s properly informed of the upgrade procedure (or if you provide technology that gives users a self-service option), it will make the entire process much easier.
Test new releases before deploying broadly. Get a jump on the servicing model. When there is a pre-release or a Windows Insider build, start testing in your lab to see what it will look like and how it will affect users. When the full build is released, pilot it with your IT team before rolling it out to your users. With the quick release cycle of Windows 10, you will always have something being tested in the lab, something in pilot, and something being deployed to end-users.
Go BIOS to UEFI. This will make your boot process a little faster and consistent, and your devices will be more secure. We had already accomplished this transition on most of our machines manually when we began our migration, but there are automated solutions that could have saved us some time. We’ll be using that for the remaining machines we still need to transition.
Look for a peer-to-peer deployment option. No matter how robust your network is, peer-to-peer is going to make it much faster. It significantly reduces the number of distribution points needed for the OS upgrade and subsequent updates. With 40,000 devices, we would normally need about 2,000 distribution points for a project like our Windows 10 migration. There are a handful of peer-to-peer providers, including Microsoft’s own version. We deemed the latter too new and unproven. We wanted a technology that was as responsive as possible and opted for 1E’s Nomad tool. What we found most useful in Nomad was the ability to see when a peer goes offline. The software quickly identifies another peer and pick up where we left off, rather than starting over on the device (keeping in mind each upgrade is several GB of data). It also comes with pre-caching features, which are a great help with those servicing updates, minimizing network performance impact. Peer-to-peer deployment helped us bring our number of distribution points down to just a handful, and when we upgraded our computer lab, it took approximately 45 minutes rather than 36 hours.
Following these steps helped ensure that our Windows 10 migration went smoothly. Just as importantly, our students and staff are enjoying the benefits of Windows 10 (security and software) without any of the interruptions we were concerned about. Windows 10 delivers daily benefits, but perhaps the greatest benefit as an early adopter came when WannaCry struck last year. It had a devastating impact on many public services worldwide, and none on Cherokee School District because our systems were already patched and secured.