Look for better Office deployment: Microsoft

With the release of Office 2000 just around the corner, Microsoft Corp. has promised users an application suite that is easier to deploy and customize.

Office 2000, which will ship to enterprise customers at the end of April and hit store shelves June 10, introduces a new integrated deployment framework that includes an enterprise planning workbook for Office 2000 deployment, Microsoft Project 98 Template, case studies on common deployment scenarios, the Office Custom Installation Wizard and the Office 2000 Custom Maintenance Wizard.

According to Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s senior vice-president of the applications and tools group, the suite was based on user feedback and designed to reduce the cost of deployment.

John Duncan, product manager for Microsoft Office at Redmond, Calif.-based Microsoft, said “What we did with Office 97 was say, ‘OK, here’s the set of things we need to do to deploy Office.’ IT administrators came back to us…and said, ‘That’s interesting, but that’s not necessarily the way it works in the real world.'”

Britt Walling, technology specialist at Chatham, Ont.-based Union Gas, which is currently running the beta version on 15 desktops in its technology solutions group, said the greatest advantages he noticed during the installation came with the Custom Installation Wizard. Union Gas plans to eventually deploy the package to 2,500 desktops

The Wizard provides administrators with the option to customize applications at the individual feature, menu and toolbar level and guides an administrator through the process of creating profiles for all types of users.

“[The Wizard offers] the ability to have one tool to customize everything inside. You could change an application…and save that one particular, customized file and then it will go out when you do the installation and it will change that installation feature,” Walling said.

According to Duncan, one of the key stumbling blocks people had with migration to Office 97 was manually customizing the profile of an STF (Setup Table File). “It required IT administrator experts going in and using Notepad or Excel to edit the registry and this STF file,” he explained. This process did not allow users to customize things at a feature-by-feature level.

Now, “with the Custom Installation Wizard, you’ve not only got more control over what you can customize, but it also automates the process…the custom installation wizard says, ‘What are the choices that you want to customize and you just press the Finish button.'”

At Union Gas, Walling said installation will likely occur in workgroups “so that people who are collaborating together and sharing the same documents and files will upgrade at the same time.”

Keeping things on a timeline is a definite concern for Union Gas. According to Steve Calhoun, the company’s manager of infrastructure operations, “We do need to get it completed by October 1 as our company has a change freeze based on Y2K requirements for any new applications.” Both Calhoun and Walling are confident the deadline will be met.

According to Walling, the biggest chunk of work between now and then “is definitely going to be [devoted to] the planning of the critical applications and the packages for the different desktops that we have to roll out to. One of the things in Office 2000 is there are 1,500 customizable features that you can do, so the package that you create has to take into consideration the size of the drive we’re going to be putting it out to.”

Kirby Myers, vice-president and general manager of Montreal-based Insight Canada, which has installed Office 2000 beta 2 on about 70 desktops, said it took the company about three days to work out the right script and possibly another two days to get 70 workstations up and running. Myers said the installation was performed over lunches and breaks to ensure operations didn’t go down.

“I can tell you that on a workstation level, I found the installation process amazing. It’s fast, it’s very informative.” Kirby added.

“We initially started on individual systems to make sure that we understood what Office 2000 was all about…(we) then installed it on the server and did the rest of the installs right from the server.”

According to Walling, one noticeable difference in upgrading this time around “was the compatibility with any other applications, and the ability with Office 2000 to save in whatever format you want. Since we’ve been running it in November in our group we’ve been sharing documents throughout the entire company and no one noticed.”

Walling also noted that previously people were calling for help because without the proper filter or converter they could not open a particular file, but now with “the custom installation, you can set to install on first use. If you don’t actually need it, it won’t be installed on your workstation. If you need it, it will be installed on first use.”

Insight’s Kirby agreed. “The nice thing about it is there’s certain components that you may need, but you don’t want installed right now. The first time that you use it, it will automatically install it…so it’s not taking up unnecessary space until you actually need the component.”