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With software upgrades, pain leads to gain

IT experts offer tips for smooth software upgrades.

Upgrading software from one version to another is a task that few IT professionals are eager to undertake.

Experts point out, however, that whether you're

For example, Ari Kaplan, president of the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), said that Oracle Database customers who put aside their fears of downtime and upgrade from 10gR1 to 10gR2 will see an immediate improvement in their ability to deal with regulatory compliance issues.

"In Oracle 10g Release 2 there are [two features] called Oracle Audit Vault, which are incredible for compliancy and security," Kaplan said. "So if your company has a requirement to adhere to -- let's say -- Sarbanes-Oxley, then that's basically a mandate to do an upgrade."

But whatever the reason for the software upgrade, experts say there are some important steps to take that can help lead to upgrade success.

For starters, companies need to research and fully understand the new features and functions that are available in the latest version, according to Cal Braunstein, chairman, CEO and executive director of research with the Robert Frances Group, a Westport, Conn.-based IT consultancy.

"You want to understand the enhancements, what problems have been fixed, etc.," he said. "That way, you can make a determination as to the value-add to your organization."

For example, Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk, a Denver-based IT consultancy, said that increased security may be the key reason to upgrade a database.

More on software upgrades:

Oracle upgrades require careful planning

DBAs look ahead to Database 10gR2 upgrades

"You might be running off a database that's old enough that support has been terminated," he said. "So you're not protected in the case of maintenance fixes or security problems."

Experts say it's also important to keep up with patches whether you're doing an upgrade or not, including those patches issued by the vendor and any patches or customizations that users may have come up with on their own.

Braunstein said a common problem along these lines occurs after a company has discovered a bug and worked with the software vendor to come up with a patch.

"You could have been the first one to find a problem, worked with Oracle, and they got you a patch that works," he said. "But when Oracle finally did a standard release for this bug, they may have found that what they gave you was not a perfect generic solution, so they did something else generically."

Finally, Braunstein said, make sure to gain a keen understanding of any prerequisites for upgrading to the latest version, because there may be other applications to take into consideration.

"For example, to apply certain parts of a database change, it may require that you have incorporated the latest service pack from Microsoft, or those modifications won't work -- and you weren't even planning on incorporating the latest service pack," Braunstein said. "So it's not just looking at the product itself but looking at other prerequisites that may apply."

So you want to be an early adopter?

Most organizations don't want to be first in line to adopt new software versions because they figure it's safer to let others work out any potential bugs. Some companies have no choice but to upgrade early, however, because of internal or external mandates.

For organizations that fall into the latter category, making sure the vendor has done its due diligence can help ensure that the often-risky early-adoption process goes as smoothly as possible.

According to Braunstein, it's important to have a good relationship with the software vendor and to leverage that relationship to make sure that the vendor has sufficiently tested the new version.

"You, as a user, have a good feel for the testing that certain vendors have done on certain products," he said. "Over time, you know whether you can trust Oracle, Microsoft, IBM or whomever it may be."

It's also important for users to make sure that their organizations have a compelling business reason to upgrade early, Braunstein said, because upgrading simply to remain current may introduce unnecessary risk.

"If you know that [the new software version] has been extremely well tested and there is urgency for you to go to it, then you might find that the risk is worth taking," he explained. "On the other hand, if you know that you're going to experience a number of problems and you have no real compelling reason to be leading-edge, then you'll do what most people do and continue to wait until it's better shaken down."

For Oracle customers, IOUG's Kaplan said, being an early adopter may be a less risky proposition than it has been in the past.

"I would say that Oracle 10gR1 was a great testament to that because it was a very stable product," Kaplan said. "Oracle really did a good job involving beta customers and involving their rigorous testing processes. So when 10gR1 came out, I think that people were positively surprised that it wasn't as buggy as other releases."

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