Extreme Makeover: Windows 7 School Edition. How a dad overhauled the IT network at son’s school

When Mitch Garvis asked his son’s elementary school teacher to print a document and the teacher asked him to come back and pick it up the next day, he realized something was wrong with the school’s IT system.

“I asked, ‘Can’t you just print it up now?’ He said, ‘Well, it takes about thirty minutes to log on and open the program and get it printed,” said Garvis.

An independent IT consultant based in Oakville, Ont., Garvis decided to tackle the issue and volunteered to overhaul the school’s computer labs and network.

The IT makeover involved 30 computers spanning administration, classrooms and the computer lab at Meadow Green Academy‘s south campus. A private school based in Mississauga, Ont., Meadow Green has roughly 20 staff and 130 students across two campuses for students in kindergarten to Grade 8.

Rather than purchase new computers, ranging from $400 to $1,000 a piece, Garvis upgraded the existing PCs with memory and video cards that cost roughly $100 per machine to support the move from Windows XP to Windows 7.

“Most of them were four-year-old Dell Pentium desktops, and one of the great tools that I used was the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit, which literally performed a scan of all of the computers on the network,” he said.

According to the scan, the computers had 256MB of RAM and videocards that would not have been compatible with the drivers, said Garvis. “The computers were perfectly good. They didn’t need to be replaced,” he said.

Microsoft Canada (NASDAQ: MSFT ) donated the licenses of Windows 7 to Meadow Green, said Garvis, and the school purchased the Microsoft Office 2007 suite with the intention of upgrading to Microsoft Office 2010.

But the older operating system aside, the problem wasn’t so much about the computers as it was the lack of management and maintenance of the machines, Garvis pointed out.

“It was easy for the teachers and students to look at these computers and say they were junk. But they weren’t junk. They weren’t properly managed and maintained,” he said.

The PCs were extremely slow, Garvis pointed out. “When I say very slow, it would literally take them 20 minutes to log on, start a program and do anything,” he said. “If you have a 45-minute computer class or lunch break and you have to spend 20 minutes logging in and starting your program, then you are not going to do it.”

Garvis said there were a lot of reasons the machines ran so slowly, from lack of disk space to lack of centralized tools to virus infections. A computer with a 40GB hard drive, for example, might have had 20MB of free space. Now students and teachers can log in and have their applications running within 90 seconds from a cold boot, he said.

The volunteer makeover was “a real learning experience,” said Garvis. “I encourage every parent with the knowledge of IT to offer to volunteer at their kids school and do what I did,” he said.

“Every business, whether they are large or small, has an IT department whether they know it or not,” he said. But some cases, it is “just somebody who knows more about computers than everybody else.”

In Meadow Green’s case, “things weren’t getting done or not getting done properly and that got them into this situation,” he said.

Meadow Green could have stayed on XP, but Windows 7 offers “the security that Windows XP never had,” he said. “Windows XP wasn’t designed around security the same way Windows 7 was,” he said.

The Windows Search feature, which indexes all documents, is another key benefit for the school that makes it “easier for them to find things,” he said. Windows 7 is also “easier to be managed centrally by the IT staff,” according to Garvis. “I can not only better secure and better maintain the environment, but I can also put into place systems that will allow us to monitor traffic,” he said.

Rather than spend 45 minutes to an hour on each computer installing the OS, applications and patches, Garvis said he invested a few hours in building a deployment scenario. The centralized deployment solution is where the real cost savings lies, according to Garvis, “because I can’t be there the entire time and I can’t monitor it live.”

“If a virus does get through — and believe me, if you have 100 kids and 15 teachers working on an individual computer doing things they probably are not always supposed to be doing — sometimes things are going to get corrupted,” he said. “Now every time a computer gets infected or has to be rebuilt, all we have to do is press a couple of buttons and it gets done automatically. It takes about three minutes of human interaction.”

Kevin Hoogendam, a Grade 5 teacher at Meadow Green Academy, notices the computers are “a lot smoother” since Garvis’ overhaul.

“There would be these errors that would come up on the screen and no one would really know what it meant, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything on the computer,” he said.

The biggest benefit is not having all of the computers crashing, he said. “They are running smoother and quicker. We are able to get more done in class,” he said.

Hoogendam also appreciates his ability to “take on more of a maintenance role” in the event of a crash. “Now if there is ever a problem, I have that deployment USB (key) … which makes it a lot easier,” he said.

Another benefit is speed, such as the startup time for Windows to launch, he said. “Opening Microsoft Word would take far too long – sometimes up to five minutes,” he said.

Organizations and schools still running Windows XP should check with their software partners and make sure the software applications they have on their PCs are still being supported, suggested Elliot Katz, senior product manager for Windows Client at Microsoft Canada.

“Many of the applications that people bought when they bought PCs with Windows XP on it are no longer being supported by the third party that wrote them,” he said.

Katz also suggested schools take a hardware and software inventory of the PCs they are supporting and “make sure those PCs are capable and ready to be upgraded to Windows 7.”

One of the main benefits of Windows 7 is that it is aimed at making people more productive, which includes faster PC startup and shut down speed as well as sleep capabilities, Katz pointed out.

Another benefit is enhanced security and control, such as the BitLocker feature for keeping school data secure and AppLocker for controlling what applications students can download and install on a PC, he said.

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