Upgrading users to new environments

Recently, Tom Limoncelli had a post at Everything Sysadmin describing how to move users to a corporate standard. Tom pretty much nailed it (particularly the part about the importance of management support), but I wanted to add my own experiences. Like Tom, I’ve been out of the fleet management business for a while. My perspective comes not from migrating from a wild west scenario to a standard, but from one standard to another.

As an aside, I was an undergraduate when my department left the wild west. The way computing worked on campus, this meant I was mostly unaware except for the weather lab and the one server that was my responsibility. I heard plenty of tales, though, from both the customer and provider side. I got to deal with the residual mistrust from all the things that went wrong. And I saw the graphs of ticket volume. Oh was it a mess I was glad to have missed.

For my part, the first summer after I became the department’s sysadmin, I decided it was time to upgrade the Linux machines. Our Linux servers were a mic of RHEL 3 and RHEL 4, while some of the desktops rand one of those or they ran Fedora Core 1. Fedora Core 1 was well beyond end-of-life by that point and packages for RHEL 3 and RHEL 4 were increasingly becoming out of date for the needs of the faculty and students who used them on a daily basis.

RHEL 5 had been released a few months prior, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get everything on the same OS. The first thing I did was to put a few spare machines in the computing lab as demo machines. Interested users could sit down and test the software packages they used and report any problems.

Meanwhile, I also surveyed each professor who had Linux machines or who taught in the lab about the software they used. Some packages we weren’t sure were ever used anymore, and it was a good opportunity to find cruft that could be cleaned up.

The next step was to “force” people to start using RHEL 5 machines by upgrading one machine in each lab (most of the faculty who had one Linux machine had several). Starting with the friendliest users, I hit every lab. We found a few problems here and there (a bug fix in tcsh caused on group quite a bit of trouble since they were inadvertently relying on the buggy behavior), but people could see them getting fixed.

The upgrade process got smoother the more times I did it, until we got to the point that I could sent our student employees off to get it started. The friendly users helped find the troublesome issues first so that the holdouts had a smooth experience. By the end of the summer all 70 or so machines were on the same OS, which reduced the support effort. Users had newer packages and a better experience. Everyone was happy and had cake (the cake was probably for something else, though).

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