Microsoft has finally released Beta 2 Technical Refresh for Office 2007 and Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (and 2 soon after), and since much of my job is to advise clients about IT futures I have to investigate these important updates thoroughly. I’ve been running Office 2007 on my main machine since December 2005 without significant problems, but only tried Vista for a couple of hours at a time confined within a virtual PC – I develop applications too, and couldn’t afford to be without a development environment, but Vista’s wasn’t up to serious use in previous beta and CTP (Community Technology Preview) releases. Build 5600 was released as Release Candidate 1 and I figured that if Microsoft has that much confidence I might take the plunge too.
We always warn people here about the dangers of installing beta software on a main machine – it certainly can be dangerous, sometimes crashing your machine so badly that you need to wipe Windows completely and reinstall everything. If you don’t have good backups, you could lose all your data, not to mention days of time and all your remaining hair. As professional IT consultants, we simply have to employ multiple safeguards against such losses: no data or documents are stored on our workstations – it’s all on our servers, which get backed up every night; all our development code is kept in either Visual SourceSafe or, increasingly, Team Foundation Server source control systems; we run RIS (Remote Installation Services) and have standard software sets – OS plus Office, Acrobat Reader, Visual Studio and so on – distributed via Group Policies so we can rebuild a workstation in about 30 minutes flat.
If I need to scrub a workstation, I just press F12 while it’s booting, then enter my Administrator credentials into the RIS server, which FDISKs the C drive and pushes a clean copy of Windows XP SP2 onto it. Once that’s finished and the clean PC has rebooted, Group Policy objects specify what applications to install and that happens before I see the sign-in dialog. My roaming profile keeps most of my customised application settings on the servers, and they get copied down when I sign in.
I probably wipe my main PC every four to six months and, once or twice a year, I rename my profile on the server so that I get a clean one without any crap in the Registry from old programs I’ve removed. Once I’ve got a clean PC, I usually spend another couple of hours installing non-standard software and configuring things the way I like them. All told, a complete rebuild takes about four hours, and if I suddenly need access to a working PC during that time I can always use one of our test workstations. I expected upgrading to Vista would take longer than this, but was still surprised by just how long it did take and how many things got broken.
Windows Vista RC1 build 5600 installed cleanly and efficiently enough – almost all the questions now get asked in advance, so after answering them you can go for a half-hour coffee break. A couple of extra questions remain for the end of installation, then you wait while Vista builds a Desktop for the first time. I had to tell Vista I wanted to join a workplace network and our company’s domain. For testing purposes, my workstation had been isolated from all software distribution groups so I could check that various items of software were Vista compatible. Office 2007 installed correctly, followed by Beta 2 Technical Refresh patches. SQL Server Management Studio and Visual Studio 2005 both installed without a hitch, and I was beginning to believe everything had gone okay when I got a Blue Screen of Death halfway through installing the MSDN Library. This left the package in limbo, such that if I tried to uninstall it said it wasn’t installed, but if I tried to install it skipped straight from “Welcome” to “Finished” without doing anything. Despite cleaning all trace of the package from the Registry and deleting its files from the hard disk, I could go neither forward nor back, so there was no choice but to wipe the machine and start again.