Windows 7 vs. Windows 8

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

With Windows XP support slated to end in less than 1,000 days and Windows 8 release rumors swirling, companies are left with several questions. What operating system (OS) should I deploy? Is it worth upgrading now? And perhaps most important, how can I make that upgrade as seamless as possible?

Most organizations disregard FUD about Windows end of life and are comfortable plugging along according to their own timetable. But companies that six to eight months ago were planning an upgrade to Windows 7 now have to be wondering about holding off for Windows 8.

MICROSOFT: Buy Windows 7 today, keep same PC for Windows 8 upgrade

There are many factors to consider before migrating to a new OS, but first let's look at why so many companies have chosen to stick with XP, which is more than 10 years old. According to a recent Forrester report, as of March 2011, Windows 7 is in use on only 20% of enterprise desktops while Windows XP is on 60%. So what's the hold up?

* Applications. Application compatibility has been a problem since Windows Vista started to be discussed, much less released. Windows 7 uses the same core OS foundation and therefore has the same challenges as Vista from an application compatibility perspective. The challenge is that many people skipped Windows Vista, and in so doing, also skipped the IT due diligence to see what needs to be done to get the full suite of a given organization's applications in an operable state on the new platform. Don't think for a second that Windows 8 will have some kind of magical XP application compatibility solution.

* Internet Explorer compatibility. Developers probably thought that by making a Web application, they would avoid OS-related platform dependencies. However, many Web applications were developed for IE6 and are now facing all kinds of compatibility issues with IE8. When it comes to getting these applications to run, you're still left with two options:

a. Wait for an upgrade, whether you write it yourself or have a vendor on the hook.

b. Perform some intense IT acrobatics to get an instance of IE6 accessible to your Windows 7 users.

Most organizations opt for the former and just stay on Windows XP. The latter usually involves some form of application virtualization or desktop virtualization. Both are expensive, add management overhead and require more hardware resources.

* Hardware. If you have XP workstations that are 5 years old, it is probably a bit optimistic to think they're going to run Windows 7. Fortunately, most organizations are prepared to trade up. Hardware is less of something to worry much about, but it is something to approach intelligently. You want to think both in terms of immediate needs (consider how you are deploying and managing the systems) and future needs (does your future include any aggressive new technology like desktop virtualization?).

Hardware is relatively cheap, and it is simultaneously getting cheaper and more powerful all the time. There are important developments, like consumerization, to consider when thinking about hardware long term. And your hardware strategy also plays into the number of OSs you think you will run on it, both concurrently through virtualization and support for upgrades over time.

Historically, getting Windows to an endpoint both quickly and easily has been a near impossibility. Assuming you have addressed questions about applications and hardware, you still need to consider migration of user data and system imaging. However, there are lots of free and third-party tools that work great, using varying degrees of automation and technical sophistication.

So, if you ARE ready to upgrade, here are a few things to consider; specifically why Windows 7 is in fact a better move for an organization right now:

* Very little detail is known about Windows 8. We assume it will behave like Windows OSs of the past, and that management, security and applications will be consistent with the past, but that is a broad assumption, and we know about the trouble you can get into when you assume. There is some inherent risk in a new OS with so many fundamental changes. Many customers will wait until the first Service Pack emerges before they make their move, so that sets migration back an additional six to nine months from the release date. Can you wait that long?

* Any sound migration plan has lots of testing involved. Until you can get your hands on Windows 8 for testing you are in the realm of the unknown. If you've already done testing for Windows 7 and you have no barriers to overcome, you can roll it out and get good mileage out of it now. Also, for large organizations with software assurance licensing, there is no additional cost for Windows licenses if you decide to move to Windows 8. However, you do need to consider the cost associated with the time and effort to do another large-scale OS migration. Your deployment toolset and management infrastructure will play a large role here in how efficiently you can get it done.

* The other component to testing is the actual process of planning and executing the actual deployment process. Depending on your management infrastructure, the distribution of the deployment package might be addressed relatively simply, but there is image architecture and imaging strategy to consider, too. Your hardware strategy plays into this, as well. So you need to plan ahead at least a month or two, and in larger organizations possibly several months, to get the deployment plan defined, refined, and locked down.

With time running out on Windows XP support, it is possible that 2011 could be a turning point for many enterprises to begin making strides toward a major OS migration, but not necessarily complete full adoption.

Whether it's Windows 7 or 8, there are many things to consider before beginning deployment, such as the high costs associated with deployment, how to manage diverse computing environments and the manpower needed for this undertaking.

In the end, businesses are going to make the move that will pose the least risk and keep the business running. And even for businesses still on Windows XP, we're years from the point when the risk of staying on Windows XP is greater than the risk of moving. And Windows 8 moves that tipping point further out if you take Windows 7 out of the picture.

Prowess is a software and services firm that helps organizations close the gap between people and technology. Prowess helps companies of all sizes and industries simplify and accelerate Windows deployment to physical and virtual platforms. Our solutions allow organizations to increase return on IT investments and reduce the time, cost and pain associated with common IT tasks.

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