US technologists give Windows 7 the green light

After taking a pass on Vista, organizations are ready to commit to Microsoft's new OS

Jim Thomas said no to Windows Vista -- but Windows 7 is an entirely different matter.

Thomas, CIO at Pella Corp., says his IT team began beta testing Vista's successor a year ago as an upgrade path from Windows XP. By October, just two months after Windows 7 launched, the Pella, Iowa-based window and door manufacturer had 225 Windows 7 clients up and running -- and the feedback from both IT staff and end users has been generally positive.

Pella is ready to move forward, Thomas says. "We will have 50% of our users, that's 2,500 machines, deployed on Windows 7 in 2010," he says. By the end of next year he expects to have 90% of the business on the new operating system.

This time, IT organizations say, it looks like Microsoft has finally delivered the goods. And just in time. About 80% of IT organizations didn't move forward with Vista, according to Gartner Inc. Instead, the vast majority of enterprise users remain on Windows XP, an outdated, eight-and-a-half-year-old operating system that should have passed into the high tech-fossil record long ago.

Computerworld US surveyed 285 IT professionals to gauge their attitudes and intentions with regard to Windows 7. Overall, 72% said they plan to migrate to Windows 7, with 70% saying they will implement it within a year or that they already are installing the new OS.

The number one reason cited for upgrading: To get off the aging Windows XP platform. That said, however, almost 40% of survey respondents will take XP support to the end -- April 2014 -- before they install Windows 7 on all their Windows machines.

Which version of Windows is currently running in your IT operation?

[Check all that apply]

Windows XP - 93%

Windows Vista - 35%

Windows 2000 - 15%

Windows 98 - 3%

Windows 95 - 2%

Source: Computerworld US online survey; 205 respondents

Those willing to wait that long, however, are in the minority. "We're ready to move on," says Paul Shane, IT director at the Seattle offices of Milliman, Inc., an actuarial consulting firm in Seattle. He avoided Vista, which he says was initially problematic, clumsy, buggy and continues to suffer from slow performance. But he expects to have most of his 150 desktops and laptops upgraded to Windows 7 by the end of this year. Disappointed with Vista, Shane briefly considered the Mac and OS X platforms. Now, he says, "We've cast those aside."

Like Thomas, he's not even waiting for the first Service Pack, which Gartner analyst Michael Silver says customers can expect some time this summer. (Microsoft had no comment on the availability of SP1.)

What IT wants: Enterprise features

For IT, Windows 7 is an opportunity to take advantage of new features and better integration, especially with Windows Server and Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager, which can save money by requiring fewer pieces of management software, and can make managing desktops easier.

Art Sebastiano, vice president of infrastructure at ModusLink Global Solutions in Waltham, Mass., has been testing Windows 7 on a few dozen machines for a rollout on 3,500 machines in 30 global locations. He says Windows Server's account-credential (password) caching, which facilitates single sign-on and allows access to networked resources when a domain controller is unavailable, works better with Windows 7 clients. "Driver support and legacy compatibility has been good," he says, and adds that Microsoft offers a downloadable XP Mode program to facilitate backward compatibility.

For his part, Shane says group policy controls are improved under Windows 7. "We really love the new client group policy. You can manage a lot of things through group policy now that used to require a login script," he says.

For University HealthSystem Consortium in Oakbrook Ill., DirectAccess, which allows secure remote access without a separate VPN client and login, is a big win. Donald Naglich, director of technology infrastructure, says that for the half of his 275 users who use laptops, remote access will become more seamless. "It's one of the main reasons we want to [move to] Windows 7," he says. "It's one less piece of software we have to worry about from an integration standpoint." He plans to start migrating to Windows 7 early next year and hopes to have all systems upgraded by the end of 2011.

Will your organization wait for the first service pack before deploying Windows 7 in a production environment?

Yes, we will wait - 19%

No, we won't wait - 34%

Expect first service pack to be available by the time we get around to deployment - 26%

Service pack release is not a factor in our deployment plans - 17%

Don't know - 4%

Source: Computerworld online survey; 205 respondents

Pella is considering deploying DirectAccess for the same reasons. "Users don't like having to remember to launch a VPN client and log in," Thomas says. He's also interested in BranchCache, a remote office content-caching technology designed to speed up access to files stored on Windows Server 2008 from Windows 7 clients. "We want to see if it adds value," Thomas says.

Both Pella and Milliman Inc. see BitLocker, which provides full-volume encryption, as a solid win for laptop users. "We used a third-party product that didn't integrate well with Windows and had a separate password," says Milliman's Shane. "Now we can secure laptops and the encryption and security is transparent to the user." He says some offices are already using BitLocker to Go, which encrypts USB storage. Then, through group policy, machines are set up so that they can't store data on any USB device that's not using encryption.

Thomas says moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 has reduced the number of system images he'll need by 80%. "It has to do with drivers and Windows 7 being able to understand and adapt to them versus having a specific image built," he says. Pella has about 25 images for all of its users, each of which must be kept up to date with the latest software updates, patches and security fixes. His team expects to have fewer than five once the deployment is complete, which should save on administrative costs.

What users like

While IT executives say Windows 7 boots up faster than Vista, is more stable and removes the intrusive user access control pop-ups, most end users didn't have Vista. Instead, end users tend to compare the new user interface in Windows 7 to what they've had with Windows XP.

ModusLink's Sebastiano says that, on the whole, his users like the interface, particularly features like drag-and-drop "snap" resizing of windows for easy side-by-side comparison and task bar previews.

But Shane says his users are split on the new task bar. "People either love it or hate it." It's a challenge, he says, because he has users who can't navigate the Start menu in Windows XP to find programs. "If it's not a shortcut on the desktop they're in trouble." He fears that another change to the task bar may just add to user confusion.

Users also don't always understand Windows 7 libraries, a concept that replaces the standard folder metaphor with a more sophisticated model that allows groupings of files that may be stored in different locations. What's more, File Explorer defaults to the local library -- even if you don't want users pointed there. Shane says that even administrators may find it annoying at first. "When you're rolling out a bunch of PCs on a network it gets in the way," he says.

Shane says his users like Windows 7's interface improvements, such as those Sebastiano described, and more subtle changes, such as how Windows automatically makes desktop icons bigger on larger screens with higher resolution. "That has helped users with poor eyesight," he says. Users particularly like what he calls the "shake and bake" feature on the Aero desktop that lets the user minimize all open windows on screen except for the currently selected one by simply grabbing and shaking that window from side to side.

Such features have been well received, he says. "But users have to be told about them."

Thomas warns that a migration from XP to Windows 7 won't be a slam-dunk with users without a little training. "Users haven't always gotten value of the tools we shove their way. This time we're spending more time up front trying to understand where the values are and actually promoting that."

Challenges and roadblocks

Given a choice between bringing in Windows 7 on new machines and upgrading old ones, most organizations prefer the former. Most (58%) of the survey respondents, however, say they will also upgrade at least some existing machines, particularly those purchased within the last two years.

One way to avoid replacing end user PCs is to use PC virtualization technologies. Naglich plans to do exactly that at University HealthSystem Consortium. And he's not alone in considering the use of desktop virtualization to ease the transition to Windows 7. Nearly one in five (18%) of IT professionals surveyed said they plan to move at least some Windows XP users from traditional Windows PCs to hosted virtual desktops as they migrate to Windows 7.

Naglich is working on a proof of concept for VMware-based desktop virtualization. That should roll out in the next month or two, he says. He hopes that hosted shared desktops will make administration easier and reduce application and hardware conflicts during the transition to Windows 7 by using a few common, centralized system images on back end servers. "For some people, the first Windows 7 they have may be on a virtualized desktop," he says. But he's not ready for a broader rollout. Most of the 275 Windows clients will be upgraded to a local version of Windows 7.

That's smart, because both Windows 7 and desktop virtualization products are still maturing, says Gartner's Silver, adding that what you save on desktops you'll need to invest in back end servers, virtualization software and associated infrastructure. The real benefits come from easier management. The sweet spot for organizations that want to do both at once, he says, is late 2011. By then, he contends, both Windows 7 and desktop virtualization technologies will be more mature.

Why is your organization planning to upgrade?

[Check all that apply]

Skipped Vista, Windows XP is getting old - 64%

Need to keep current - 45%

We paid for it as part of our enterprise license agreement / might as well upgrade - 24%

Need to improve security - 22%

We're also adopting other new desktop or server software and might as well get it all done at once - 12%

Source: Computerworld online survey; 205 respondents

For existing hardware that meets Windows 7 system requirements, all of the usual upgrade issues apply. "Fresh installs are quick," Sebastiano says. On the other hand, while a Vista upgrade to Windows 7 is fairly straightforward, getting user profiles and settings moved over from XP is more challenging. He's looking at using Laplink Software's PCmover to bring those over.

Application compatibility is another potential issue, particularly for older software. Axium Healthcare Pharmacy Inc., an online specialty pharmacy based in Lake Mary, Fla., is using several internally developed Visual Basic 6 applications that won't run on Windows 7, not even with the XP Mode software. "A lot of ActiveX controls don't play at all," says Norbert Cointepoix, director of IT.

But Matt Okuma has found that some applications run better. Okuma, enterprise architect at BEST Technology Services, a business unit of Pacific Coast Building Products in Rancho Cordova, Calif., says his Cisco unified communications software never worked properly on about 100 of the Vista machines he rolled out. Some of those, he says, had to be rolled back to Windows XP. With Windows 7, however, it runs just fine. "We love it. Everything just works," he says.

Well, almost. Initially Windows 7 machines running Internet Explorer 8 couldn't connect to his iPrism proxy server, but he says the vendor, St. Bernard Software, provided a fix quickly. He plans to start rolling out Windows 7 to all 3,500 users next year.

The IE 8 quandary

The good news is that Internet Explorer 8 follows industry standards more closely than did IE7 and IE6. The bad news: Its lack of backward compatibility with proprietary features in previous versions of the Microsoft browser may cause problems for Web sites and applications designed to work with those browser versions -- especially IE6. More than half of survey respondents (53%) said that they may have applications that won't run properly with IE8.

"If you have apps that were written to IE6 you're going to have some issues," Silver says, and he warns that IE8 runs with fewer Windows user rights on Windows 7 than it did on XP. A Microsoft spokesperson says that administrators can set up Windows 7 machines to run previous versions of IE in XP Mode if necessary.

If you're not planning to move to Windows 7, why not?

[Check all that apply]

Benefits not sufficient to warrant adoption - 59%

Cost - 44%

No business need - 44%

Too time-consuming - 38%

Migrating to another desktop operating system - 19%

Source: Computerworld online survey; 32 respondents

Premier Health Partners has a medical imaging application that still requires IE6 and a clinical application that requires IE7. "We're in a quandary here," says Sam Seay, corporate director of infrastructure. While he could use XP compatibility mode to try to run IE6 and IE7 on some machines, Seay says he prefers to wait for the vendors to support IE 8.

"The biggest issue is making sure you do application compatibility testing," Thomas says. Pella's IT staff has had to update software releases and work through issues on some of the company's approximately 400 applications. Pella is still testing compatibility; the firm started with its most-used applications, in terms of the number of users. "Our issue has been on older apps that didn't necessarily follow current development guidelines," Thomas says, explaining that Pella's had to make some "small adjustments" on approximately 20% of its applications, or get updates if a more current release exists.

In general, he says, "We haven't had too many applications that we haven't been able to get running."

Overall, after more than eight years living with XP, most organizations say they finally feel comfortable moving on. Shane feels confident that the transition will go smoothly at Milliman. "It's not something completely new," he says. "They just made a better Vista."

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Robert L. Mitchell

Computerworld (US)

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