Tim Vander Kooi has gone to Microsoft's TechEd North America many times since the late 1990s, but he's never been as enthused as he is this year about attending the conference, the company's most important event for IT professionals and developers.
The reason is simple: Microsoft is in the midst of a historic and extensive wave of upgrades for its enterprise products, and Vander Kooi wants to ensure his company rides the upgrade wave successfully.
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"I want to go in there and sit and learn and absorb things because there are so many new product releases and I want to understand how they all fit together," said Vander Kooi, Microsoft Systems Administrator at Explorer Pipeline in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Microsoft is working on new versions of Windows, Internet Explorer, Office, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Dynamics ERP applications, Visual Studio and Windows Server, and recently shipped new versions of SQL Server and System Center.
So when he walks into the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, where the conference will take place from June 11 to June 14, Vander Kooi plans to immerse himself in the proceedings, with a particular focus on Windows Server 2012, which is in beta and due out later this year.
Ross Eberle, technical support supervisor at Rockford Public Schools in Rockford, Illinois, is headed to his first TechEd, also motivated in large part by the upgrade wave, and is particularly interested in Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012.
"At the school district where I work, we are considering moving away from our current desktop management solution and the System Center products are looking pretty good. In addition, I'm a big fan of Hyper-V as we use it as our primary virtualization platform and the latest updates have definitely piqued my interest," Eberle said via e-mail.
It will also be the first TechEd for Heather Fitzpatrick, a senior technology trainer at NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) in Daytona Beach, Florida, who will be paying close attention to key existing products and upcoming upgrades.
"We want to make sure that anything we're going to deploy to our company is going to work seamlessly with any other products we have in place, so we definitely want to make sure we've looked into and fully vetted [products] before we roll anything out," she said.
Fitzpatrick, who will also act as a Microsoft Certified Trainer Ambassador at the show, advising other attendees about certifications and exams, wants to look into Office 365 and its features for document sharing and collaboration.
Explorer Pipeline's Vander Kooi is particularly interested in Windows Server 2012's new and improved security, permissions and virtualization features, and in how the changes will impact the applications.
His employer is a heavy user of Microsoft software and hosts a variety of critical enterprise applications -- from Microsoft, other vendors and custom-developed in house -- in Windows Server 2008 R2 and, to a lesser extent, on Windows Server 2003.
He will also seek details about Office 15, an early-stage initiative that will involve an ambitious upgrade of the Office productivity applications, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as of Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, and of Office 365, the cloud suite that includes online versions of these products.
"I want to get ideas about what I need to start pre-planning for and start doing now to be proactive and ready for these products when they hit the ground," said Vander Kooi, whose employer operates an almost 1,900-mile common carrier pipeline system that transports fuel from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest.
Vander Kooi will also look for details about Windows 8, the new version of the Windows operating system for desktop PCs, laptops and tablets.
So far, he is skeptical about the two user interfaces Windows 8 will have: the traditional Windows environment and the new Metro-style interface, which is designed for touch-based screens.
Many Windows 8 testers have complained that in the beta versions of Windows 8, the Metro UI is confusing and difficult to use with a mouse and keyboard in regular non-touch screen PCs, and that toggling between it and the traditional Windows interface is problematic.
Vander Kooi's company gives its employees desktop PCs, laptops and smartphones, but not yet tablets, so he sees little use for the Metro interface among its 250 users. "What they've done is put another layer between me and the stuff I actually want to get to," he said. "It just makes life that much more difficult to do work in the environment I want to do my work in."
Explorer Pipeline recently finished upgrading most of its PCs from Windows XP to Windows 7, but Vander Kooi wouldn't rule out an upgrade to Windows 8 if it were deemed worthwhile, or if it were necessary to take advantage of key new features in Windows Server 2012 and other upcoming upgrades.
In fact, his company will be actively scoping Windows 8 tablets when they start hitting the market, and will consider providing them to some users who could benefit from having such devices, he said. The company also recently acquired about 20 new laptops with touch screens.
However, he thinks Microsoft needs to give IT departments flexibility to configure their Windows 8 interface preferences, so that the Metro UI doesn't become an obstacle to productivity in devices and scenarios in which he finds it clunky, such as with desktop PCs and docked laptops connected to the corporate network and used with external keyboards, monitors and mice.
"I hope there will be group policy settings we can use to make things look the way we want them to look and work best for us, rather than having that whole Metro thing shoved down our throats," he said.
Windows 8, which is in its final development phase and expected to be commercially available before the end of the year, will most likely be talked about at length at TechEd, as Microsoft continues to promote it among enterprises. Aside from the new Metro UI, Windows 8 has a significant number of new and improved enterprise IT features, Microsoft has said.
However, many industry analysts are skeptical about enterprise adoption of Windows 8, since many organizations have recently migrated, or are in the process of migrating, to Windows 7.
"Once Windows 8 is released, Microsoft can begin to have conversations with enterprise customers," said Al Gillen, an IDC analyst. "You'll see it utilized initially by customers who have an immediate need for tablet devices. As far as traditional desktops and laptops, I don't think most organizations are going to rush into Windows 8. We'll see some deployments, but those will be fairly light."
Microsoft declined to say how many people are expected to attend the conference, but the total has exceeded 10,000 in previous years. For example, about 10,500 customers, partners and Microsoft employees attended the 2010 edition of the show in New Orleans. In addition to its main edition in the U.S., TechEd is also held in other parts of the world.
But right now, the focus is on TechEd North America 2012. "There's so much going on. I think this is going to be the best TechEd ever," Vander Kooi said.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.