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November 30, 2009

Seventh heaven?

October saw the release of Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 7. With XP now nearly ten years old and Vista generally bypassing the enterprise, should businesses be looking to upgrade, and what are the pitfalls they should be wary of? Steve Evans finds out.

By Steve Evans

“We’re putting in all the right ingredients: simplicity, reliability and speed. And we’re working hard to get it right and to get it ready,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when he launched Windows 7 at Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2009. It was a not too subtle dig at Windows 7’s predecessor Vista, which was released to generally disappointing reviews in January 2007.

History has perhaps been kinder to Vista than its original reception suggested, with Gartner claiming in 2008 that enterprise take-up in the year after its release matched that of Windows XP. Vista sold 20 million copies in its first month on sale, double what XP shifted in the month after its release in 2001. XP, however, continued to sell well in the years after its release and now claims market share of around 68%, with Vista way back on 22%.

In September 2007 CBR conducted a survey of 300 IT decision makers in the UK and found that just over 1% of respondents had already upgraded all desktops to Windows Vista, while just under 5% said they had started the migration process. The vast majority of firms that had not started the upgrade process, or were planning on skipping it altogether, said that they saw no advantage in upgrading to Vista.

Early signs for Windows 7 have been more encouraging, with reviews and analyst opinions proclaiming it a great leap forward for Windows and Microsoft. A survey by desktop and server management firm ScriptLogic revealed that although six in 10 business claimed they would skip Windows 7, 5.4% planned on having it in place by the end of 2009, with another 34% aiming to have Windows 7 installed by the end of 2010, suggesting enterprise adoption of nearly 40% after just over a year of release. CBR’s Vista adoption survey suggested take up of around 25% in the same time period.

Application compatibility management firm ChangeBASE also conducted a Windows 7 uptake survey. The company quizzed 163 senior IT decision makers from large global organisations and found that that 41% of organisations are planning on making the migration within the next year while a further 18% expect to make the switch within the next two years. “The figures are higher than other reports have suggested,” ChangeBASE MD John Tate tells CBR. “We’re expecting much faster adoption because many enterprises are still running XP or even Windows 2000 and they need to upgrade.”

Grossly underestimated

Upgrading brings its own challenges to the enterprise, with application compatibility a particular issue. Windows 7 is essentially intended to be an update to the Windows line rather than a complete rewriting of the code, meaning that application and hardware that ran on Vista will also run on Windows 7. However, Vista’s poor adoption rates in the enterprise mean that for many businesses the upgrade process will not be particularly easy.

ChangeBASE’s survey revealed that application compatibility was the main worry for businesses looking to upgrade. “It’s a big project for all companies. All apps have to be tested and the process to test and switch an app to a new platform can take up to three days,” he says.

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Ovum research fellow Jonathan Yarmis agrees that Vista’s poor penetration in the enterprise space may well hurt companies looking to upgrade to Windows 7. “I think the Windows 7 migration issue has been grossly underestimated. If you’re going from a 64bit Vista platform to 64bit Windows 7, it’s a pretty clean migration. If you’re doing it from 32bit versions of operating systems you’ll have to reinstall all your apps. I think companies will look at it and think that it’ll take a lot of work.”

But app compatibility is not the only thing enterprises should consider when contemplating an upgrade, says Yarmis. “As a business you have to ask the question, ‘what business problem is Windows 7 solving?’ If you’re running Excel, PowerPoint and Word today and then spend a lot of money on an operating system upgrade, you’re still going to be running those tomorrow.”

Yarmis added that it does not matter how good the technology behind Windows 7 is if it does not meet the needs of today’s businesses. “It’s like introducing an amazing horse and cart at the dawn of the advent of the automobile. It doesn’t matter how good it is, in 10 years time we’ll all be asking how we got so excited about Windows 7 in 2009. They have a technology-oriented sale in a market place that is transforming rapidly.”

Beginning the cycle

Some companies have already begun the upgrade cycle. IT services firm Computacenter is one such company and Andy Goddard, practice leader, workplace and collaboration there, told CBR that they needed to transfer to Windows 7 because Computacenter customers were showing a lot of interest in it.

“We needed to skill up our own IT teams because most of our customers are using XP and they felt they had to upgrade because of the age,” he tells CBR. “XP still works but you really need Windows 7 for full functionality. Adopting it now means we get early access to the new technology.”

Computacenter has implemented Windows 7 to a small number of its staff with a bigger rollout expected in 2010. The firm has experienced only a small number of app compatibility issues so far, Goddard says. “We had a few problems with Vista with drivers and so on but the few problems we’ve had with Windows 7 revolve around application compatibility,” he says. “Some have been common issues like help files not working, which isn’t really an issue, and some have not worked at all. But there have been no show stoppers, nothing that has stopped the upgrade process.”

Goddard also speculated that Windows 7 may be the last major operating system upgrade cycle that happens in this traditional way, as companies look towards thin clients and browser-based technologies. Ovum’s Yarmis agrees, and adds that Microsoft has missed a trick regarding virtualisation technology.

“I would argue that in some ways Windows 7 is the last of the big bloat-ware operating systems of its kind,” he says. “There are huge advantages to the cloud service delivery model – small companies don’t own computer infrastructure anymore. They get their storage and apps in the cloud and collaborate there. It gives them amazing cost flexibility. Why didn’t Microsoft build virtualisation capabilities into Windows 7? Because that will enable people to run other operating systems on it. It’s a monolithic platform and it doesn’t advance their business agenda right now.”

But there are a number of compelling reasons for enterprises to consider an upgrade, especially the fact that all support, including critical security updates, for Windows XP is due to expire by April 2014.

Microsoft also highlights simplified PC management and improved security as drivers for enterprise adoption. Windows 7 introduces BitLocker To Go, which can encrypt removable USB storage devices, and AppLocker, which offers IT admins a centralised way to apply group policy to specify which software users can run, enabling a company to standardise desktop configurations. It also means users will not be able to install unauthorised software.

End users should also notice big differences, Microsoft believes. Faster boot and shut down times and a quick PC search feature called Windows Search should help productivity, while mobile workers should notice improved battery life as Windows 7 is less of a drain on resources than older operating systems.

“It’s just better than XP. It’s more stable and it performs better” says Computacenter’s Goddard. “Vista didn’t work as expected so we didn’t fully roll it out but early signs for Windows 7 are encouraging.”

Consumer-led adoption?

Microsoft will also be encouraged by early sales figures for Windows 7, which Steve Ballmer has described as fantastic. Online retailer Amazon said that pre-orders for Windows 7 had exceeded any other release, including Harry Potter books. The expected economic recovery during 2010 should also push up PC sales, which will ultimately benefit Microsoft. “Windows 7 is an example of the kind of innovations that I think are important in the technology marketplace,” says Ballmer. “People don’t buy operating systems, they buy computers with operating systems on them.”

If initial consumer adoption is strong, Yarmis believes that the enterprise space may well follow. “They are clearly getting early momentum and that is important,” he tells CBR, “but the launch has been heavily consumer-oriented, and there are some good functionalities for the home. Clearly what Microsoft is hoping is that users get the excitement at home, which they will then want at work.”

The economic situation, however, may well sway the decision, says Yarmis. “I think that most enterprise adoption figures are a littler higher than we’ll actually see. Once we get over the initial wave of consumer enthusiasm the cold hard economic reality will kick in,” he says.


CBR opinion

It seems likely that Windows Vista’s poor adoption in the enterprise will result in a significant number of businesses moving to Windows 7 before too long. Upgrading from XP however requires a clean install so now is the time to put migration plans in place, if you are looking to upgrade.

Windows 7 is an improvement on Vista, while the 10 year old XP is nearing the end of its life. For those reasons alone IT should be looking at the possibility of a migration. However, as Ovum’s Yarmis points out this could well be the last Windows release of its kind, as enterprises move away from traditional on-premise technology to cloud-based infrastructures. Maybe now is the time for a complete IT infrastructure rethink.


Windows 7 migration: what you need to know

Analyst house Gartner suggests that for a successful migration to Windows 7, enterprises need a 12- to 18-month preparation period, including a pilot program of at least three months.

The first step, however, is three months of Information Gathering – when organisations should establish a project committee and develop an overall project timeline. The committee should contain members of every business unit to ensure all departments are represented. This period should also contain an inventory of all hardware, peripherals and apps to establish compatibility.
The second step is Engineering Testing, which involves lab testing of applications, setting standards and the development of processes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the pilot test phase, which Gartner suggests should last for a minimum of three months. Piloting moves the testing out of the lab and exposes real users to the new environment. This is a chance to establish training needs, gauge general user reaction and enable IT staff to exercise their new Windows 7 skills. This should be conducted with a user group of fewer than 50 before being extended to more users.

Once the piloting process has been completed, the preparation process is effectively completed, says Gartner, and organisations can then conduct staged rollouts of the OS to their user populations.



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