Windows 7: Corporate customers bullish on adoption plans

Corporate adoption of Windows 7, Microsoft's new operating system released today, seems to be more a question of when, not if. This is in stark contrast to what happened with Windows Vista, which companies skipped right over; many are, in fact, migrating from Windows XP directly to Windows 7.

San Francisco-based Del Monte Corp., for example, plans to fully deploy Windows 7 on its 3,200 PCs within the next 2 ½ to 3 years. "Our goal at Del Monte is to be at the forefront of technology, to be first in class, so we're leading with a lot of Microsoft initiatives. We're an early adopter of Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010," says Jonathan Wynn, manager of advanced technology and collaborative services at Del Monte.

Currently the vast majority of Del Monte's PCs are running Windows XP SP3; like many other companies Del Monte skipped Vista, Wynn says, because of compatibility issues. While it's moved some of its users to Windows 7, the larger transition will start in January.

"So far we have 45 business users using Windows 7, and every year we refresh about a third of our laptops and desktops, so we think in about a year we're going to be pushing out about 1,000 Windows 7 machines," Wynn says. "We've got a well-defined, well-thought-out plan as to how we're deploying and managing this."

For one thing, Del Monte users on XP who are clustered with users running Windows 7 can request to be upgraded to Windows 7. Wynn says he will accommodate that request, providing their hardware is up to snuff.

The buzz around Windows 7 from analysts, reviewers and corporate IT staffers is that it's one of the best operating systems from Microsoft they've seen in quite some time. And that's despite concerns in some quarters that migrating from XP to Windows 7 is more difficult than migrating from Vista to the new OS.

Upgrading to Windows 7 a mixed bag

Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Mass., says from a technical perspective, it's pretty easy to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7; you just pop the disc in live and you upgrade.

Getting ready for Windows 7

Adoption tips from Benjamin Gray, an analyst at Forrester, who says IT professionals should start preparing for Windows 7 now:

* Start or accelerate application compatibility testing

* Roll out Windows 7 in small batches on new hardware initially

* Weigh the costs and benefits of upgrading existing machines with at least 2GB of memory

* Start developing training sessions and "tips and tricks" guidance

* Prepare for -- and embrace -- empowered users who want to be early adopters

But from XP, maybe not so much, he says.

Moving from XP to Windows 7 is fine if users get all new software, but problems may occur with customers who want to continue to use old programs, Kay says. Older software built to run in XP may not work natively in 7, although he believes Windows 7 will likely be much more successful than Vista was at finding necessary drivers.

Microsoft, for its part, recommends desktop virtualization tools as one way of running older applications. Then there are Windows XP Mode, meant mostly for small and medium-sized businesses to help run XP applications in a virtualized desktop, and parts of the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit that are intended specifically for XP to Windows 7 migration. XP Mode, however, is getting mixed reviews.

Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., says that even though enterprises can install Windows 7 over Vista, it is not possible to install over XP. So the best approach with XP to do a clean install.

The upgrade path from XP to Windows 7 will become clearer as larger numbers of customers roll out the new OS to more of their end users.

Wynn says that at Del Monte, Windows 7 was easily deployed on 45 machines that had been running XP.

"We used Configuration Manager, one of Microsoft's products," he says. "We've been using the desktop deployment process . . . so our techs could actually deploy it through a USB key. They plug the USB key into a laptop and boot up to that. Then they forklift [users'] documents up, lay the OS down and put the docs right back down. Then they put the applications back on top."

Wynn says in about 30 or 40 minutes users have a full-fidelity, ready-to-go laptop or desktop with all the applications and files they've been using and with all the new features of Windows 7.

Much better than Vista

That's a far cry from the sentiments expressed by users and analysts after the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft's last major operating-system upgrade, to business customers in November 2006. Users' problems with Vista ran the gamut from privacy to security to performance, and even drivers and product activation.

But it appears that Microsoft has now fixed the major complaints about Vista, causing analysts and users to be fairly high on Windows 7.

"I've been pretty positive on Windows 7, so I would certainly say to most organizations that they ought to adopt it," says analyst Cherry. "You could make a list of all the things you didn't like about Vista and all the barriers Vista created to deployment. Microsoft . . . basically went down that list and fixed everything on it."

Kay agrees. Corporate customers may have some trepidation "in the run-up to 7 because they're been burned by Vista, but early adopters have been pleasantly surprised," he says. "Microsoft in this case wanted to under-promise and over-deliver, which is the opposite of what it did with Vista."

Most planning a slow move to Windows 7

Chad Skidmore, director of infrastructure operations at Inland Northwest Health Services (INHS) in Spokane, Wash., says his company will move most of its 10,000 desktops, the vast majority of which are currently running Windows XP, to Windows 7. He's particularly impressed with Windows 7's stability, its speed and its out-of-the-box security.

IT plans for Windows 7

A survey of 145 IT professionals showed many are planning to adopt Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 over the next two years.

Windows 7 on laptops/desktops - 51%

Windows 7 on netbooks - 38%

Windows Server 2008 R2 - 60%

Source: Chadwick Martin Bailey, Boston, Mass.

"When we did our early evaluation we felt that it is probably one of the best operating systems that we've seen come out of Microsoft in quite a while," Skidmore says.

One of the challenges faced by the health-care sector is the fact that it takes application developers a bit longer to completely validate a new OS than in some enterprise environments, he says. In part, that's because of regulatory oversight from entities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for certain kinds of systems used in health care, including operating systems, according to Skidmore.

Skidmore says INHS is getting ready to begin the application-validation process. He says it's not out of the question to have a good portion of users migrated to the new OS in about a year.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defense is another early adopter of Windows 7.

Christ van Gestel, the ministry's product group manager of application hosting, says at the moment 25 of the organization's 60,000 PCs are running Windows 7. That number will increase to 300 within a week or two, he says. The ministry's current operating system is Windows XP, although there are a few Vista workstations.

"We are just in the exploration phase to decide if we want to upgrade the OS," he says. "We are testing all our [1,300] applications for compatibility with Windows 7."

If the organization decides to adopt Windows 7 completely, van Gestel says that deployment would begin on July 1, 2010 and would be finished in approximately three years. He says that the defense ministry usually updates a client operating system during its normal hardware refresh cycle, which is typically 15,000 or so PCs per year.

While enterprises typically wait for the first service pack to be released before implementing a new operating system, analyst Kay's advice for corporate customers is to not wait for Windows 7 SP 1.

"Commonly in an enterprise that's been the wisdom -- wait for SP 1 because the OS isn't stable," Kay says. "But enterprises really don't have to wait for SP 1 -- that's the old wisdom. The new wisdom is that it's already been through its battle-testing and this is the good one. Yes there will be an SP 1 at some point but it won't be about stability, it will be about features or some accumulated security update or things like that."

Windows 7 results to date good, but expect a learning curve, too

So far, things are looking good, van Gestel says.

"Our normal goal is to reduce our total cost of ownership of desktops annually by 10%," he explains. To achieve that, the Ministry counts up a number of metrics: the reinstall time is less with 7, and there are fewer calls to the service desk and call center, he says. "Also we see a reduction in deployment time [with Windows 7] -- normally it takes two hours, now it only takes one hour."

The first 25 desktops that had Windows 7 installed required less IT time than with prior operating systems, he added. "Because Windows 7 is more stable," there was much less need to reinstall the OS, unlike other operating systems the Ministry has used. And "less reinstall time costs us less staff time."

His users have had only positive things to say about the new OS; it's easier to use and they like the new interface, he adds.

INHS' Skidmore says his users already on Windows 7 like its overall performance and stability, particularly when compared to Vista. But the feedback from former XP users is that there's bit of a learning curve to get accustomed to the changes in the user interface, he says.

Analyst Kay says what's really changed from Vista is the behavior of the front end, which is all about the user interface. "It's faster, it's much less chatty, it doesn't babble at you all the time," he says. "And it's very flexible."

For example, Windows 7 allows people to adjust the User Account Control (UAC), a controversial security feature that debuted in Vista that uses pop-up messages to notify users that a program is making changes to their systems. In Vista, there were no user-settable pieces of UAC settings, but with Windows 7 there are.

Still, Skidmore adds, "It's really the stability and the speed that I'm hearing the most about. And the longtime XP users say that it looks nicer and it's a much sexier, modern-looking interface. And while there's no such thing as a fully secure OS, Windows 7 seems to be considerably more secure out of the box and I think that's a real plus."

For his part, Del Monte's Wynn says users like the faster shutdown and startup processes, as well as the hibernation mode. And, he says, they like the fact that the OS intuitively knows if they're connecting to their wireless systems at home or if they're working at the office.

Hardware requirements not a big deal

Skidmore says the different hardware requirements for Windows 7 vs. those for Windows XP are not very significant. In fact, he says that issue always comes up with new operating systems. To help solve that problem, INHS is on a three-year replacement schedule for desktops so the company can cycle users to a new operating system as it's replacing laptops and desktop computers.

But the cost of hardware upgrades to meet the system requirements aren't likely to be significant barriers to deployment of Windows 7 as they were with Vista, says Dean Williams, services development manager for Softchoice Corp., a Toronto-based reseller.

Windows Vista minimum specs

* 800MHz CPU

* 512MB of RAM

* 20GB hard drive

* SVGA-capable graphics

Windows 7 minimum specs

* 1GHz CPU

* 1GB of RAM

* 16GB of drive space

* DirectX 9-capable graphics card or integrated chip (true of most releases 2002 and after)

That's because 88% of corporate PCs are already able to support the minimum system requirements of Windows 7, according to a survey by Softchoice, based on data from 450,000 PCs at 284 North American organizations between November 2008 and August 2009.

"It's our feeling that there is work to be done for that small percentage of the PCs that need more RAM and more hard drive," Williams says. "Parts are inexpensive and the labor is nominal, but what would be difficult is creating a list of all those computers that they need to action and beyond that making sure they're properly covered from a licensing standpoint."

Additionally, as with any upgrade, Williams says companies need to make sure that they're prepared for the potential spike in support desk traffic and that users are being properly educated on how to use the new operating system.

Not everyone's in a rush

Brad Kowal, assistant director, data center operations at Shands HealthCare in Gainesville, Fla., says his company has no immediate plans to move its 6,000 PCs to Windows 7. Currently 10% of those PCs run Vista while the rest run XP, he says.

"We are always a late adopter," he says. "The reality is we have hundreds of applications dependent on XP as an operating system, or more specifically, the browser as in IE6 level, and when you get into our ActiveX applets they only operate at an IE6 level. And therefore we are in no rush to migrate." Windows 7 automatically upgrades users to IE8, which would mean Shands' ActiveX applets would no longer operate.

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