Seven tips to migrate and manage Windows 7

Taking the leap to Micosoft's latest operating system? Here's how to do it right

Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system could drive upgrades across Windows XP and Vista environments. Industry watchers and experts advise how to smoothly transition and maintain a new environment.

Enterprise IT organizations eager to upgrade aging Windows XP and Vista systems to Microsoft's just released Windows 7 could make the process a whole lot smoother by investigating a handful of management technologies and processes aimed at greasing the skids of such a major software update.

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"At some point, Windows users will need to transition over to Windows 7 because XP will no longer be supported and Vista just didn't take off in terms of adoption," says Steve Brasen, principal analyst at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). "The ability to manage and automate the processes around upgrading to Windows 7 will be critical for midsize and enterprise organizations."

Here industry watchers share seven essential steps enterprise IT managers must take when considering a move to Microsoft's Win 7.

1. Test desktop durability.

According to data from Forrester Research, even two-and-a-half years after the general availability of Windows Vista, Windows XP still runs 86% of all enterprise PCs powered by Windows. The research also shows that those considering an upgrade won't be able to take a direct path from XP to Windows 7 -- which represents a few challenges. For one, hardware could be lacking the necessary drivers, memory and other components.

"Migrating XP to Win 7 will challenge many IT administrators because you can't upgrade directly. Some are suggesting companies buy all new hardware or perform a complete refresh of the computer," explains Katherine Wattwood, vice president of product development for Persystent Software.  

Persystent Suite offers customers features that test existing PCs for hard disk space and other components required in Win 7. The software can help IT managers determine which PCs could handle the updated operating systems and which would need to be swapped out or updated themselves.

"Pre-migration planning and hardware compatibility testing would be critical to determine which PCs are Win 7-ready," Wattwood says.

2. Plan for licensing.

Unlike previous Windows operating systems, such as XP, Win 7 offers several editions, or options, enterprise IT departments must consider when planning to migrate to the latest software. Industry analysts say three should be considered by IT managers.

First, Windows 7 Professional -- comparable to Vista Business -- could be the least expensive option, according to Forrester Research, which points out this edition is available via OEM, retail or volume licensing. Windows 7 Enterprise is the edition the companies have the right to deploy if they own a Windows license covered with Microsoft Software Assurance, the vendor's software maintenance program offered as an option with volume licensing. This enterprise version offers additional features that global organizations might find useful, such as DirectAccess, which gives mobile users access to corporate accounts without a VPN or BranchCache, a feature Microsoft says decreases the time users at remote offices spend waiting to download files across the network. Windows 7 Ultimate, Forrester says, could be considered as more of a consumer option and isn't sold via volume licensing -- but could be put to use as a media PC in a corporate environment.

Forrester advises in a recent research report that companies take into consideration many factors when planning for Win 7 licenses. Existing licenses, software agreements and the upgrade path should be among the considerations.

"Your historical approach to refreshing your desktops and laptops combined with the age of your infrastructure by the time you're ready to start your Windows 7 deployment will impact whether you should introduce it via a forklift or 'big bang' approach or via the natural rolling refresh cycle," the report reads. "Your license plans should not just be limited to your Windows upgrade strategy. There can be opportunities to take advantage of bundles that can drive down costs across your Microsoft investments."

3. Ensure application compatibility.

Not only does hardware need to be tested to see if it can take Windows 7, but software applications must also be checked for compatibility with the new version.

"There are a few aversions enterprise IT has to an upgrade right now," EMA's Brasen says. "One of them being there is still a big problem with proprietary applications and drivers that are just not compatible with Vista or Win 7. Until companies can reach a level of compatibility and applications are brought up to speed, a transition will be difficult."

In fact, Brasen says he is "not aware of a systems management vendor that doesn't have an upgrade path for Windows 7. They know it's coming. Even if their current subscribers aren't planning for it in the next few months, it is going to happen at some point." That's why enterprise IT organizations should be testing application compatibility now, and products from companies like Persystent and CA, among many others, offer application compatibility testing.

This sort of testing would point out the potential problems and foreseeable performance issues desktops could incur when running Windows 7. Applications from vendors run automatically, detect the problematic machines and applications, perform an inventory and report back to IT managers about the issues. Manually conducting such tests would be extremely time-consuming, analysts say. Vendors argue by adding automation to this process, they reduce costs and time to deployment. For instance, CA IT Client Manager uses policies to reduce hands-on labor.

"Our software allows IT to set policies that allow a set of individuals to have certain applications on their systems, while another group would have a different policy applied to them," says Laural Gentry, senior principal product manager at CA. "Our product supports the decision-making, planning process by performing asset inventory, application and infrastructure compatibility tests in order to ensure the entire migration runs more smoothly."

4. Take advantage of automation.

For many companies, acquiring enterprise software to help with a migration of enterprise software might be cost-prohibitive. But industry watchers argue that attempting to migrate or manage a Win 7 environment without automation technology will overwhelm IT staff and nearly guarantee problems with the implementation.

"An automated system management platform, available from many vendors, could bundle up the image and send it out to many machines as part of an automated process," Brasen says. "Companies will experience a lot of pain upgrading to Windows 7 if they can't get an automated platform in place."

For many larger organizations the automated features could likely already be a part of their client systems management products from the likes of LANDesk, CA, Persystent, Kace, BigFix and several others. But for small to midsize organizations, automated deployment isn't a technology they already have in house. But Microsoft has considered this and made available a free tool to address this situation.

Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2010 is software optimized to support Windows 7 deployments and includes built-in capabilities to support customers migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7, the company says. MDT 2010 Beta 2 is currently available for free download here. 

"Microsoft is offering compelling reasons for customers to migrate to Windows 7," says Benjamin Gray, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

5. Consider client virtualization.

The release of Windows 7 has companies considering another new technology: virtual desktops. The promise of ease of management and increased security that virtual desktop technology offers could drive customers to consider the technology when they have budget dollars for a PC refresh.

For its part, Microsoft offers two products that take advantage of virtualization and could be considered a means to managing a migration to or ongoing deployment of Windows 7. Microsoft Application Virtualization, the company says, helps reduce downtime for customers by turning Windows applications into "centrally managing virtual services that are delivered to any licensed Windows desktop or laptop." And Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization allows desktop administrators to create, deliver and centrally manage a virtual Windows XP or 2000 environment (based on Microsoft Virtual PC 2007) and run legacy applications on Windows Vista desktops, the vendor says.

But Microsoft isn't the only vendor touting virtualization as an option. VMware and Citrix also boast virtual desktop infrastructure and could provide viable alternatives to a full-blown Windows 7 migration, industry watchers say.

"IT managers would be able to go with a virtualization solution as well. If you are doing desktop virtualization, you can deploy your virtual container for the new desktop environment down to each one of the client endpoints. It would be as simple as setting one up and deploying it out to many," Brasen says. "Microsoft, VMware and Citrix would all have options for customers here."

6. Replace hardware.

For some IT organizations, a migration plan could morph into a replacement plan. Outdated desktops and laptops could be easier to swap out than update and vendors working with Microsoft would equip new hardware with the most recent operating system.

According to industry watchers, the economic recession had many IT decision-makers postponing hardware upgrades and equipment investments until a recovery was in sight. Now couple the Windows 7 availability with a need to refresh hardware, and some might just kill two birds with one stone -- making the migration challenge a moot point.

"Many organizations with aging infrastructure could do a massive PC refresh by mid-2010 and replace existing hardware with new desktops and laptops," Forrester's Gray says.

PC vendors have worked with Microsoft to deliver machines optimized to work with Windows 7, such as the new Windows 7 Lenovo Enhanced Experience. If a customer buys a Windows 7 PC and maintains the pre-loaded optimization features, they could experience benefits such as faster reboot and shutdown times, which ultimately provide productivity improvements to end users, says Bob Dieterle, executive director of worldwide services at Lenovo.

"When looking at our customer engagements, almost 40% of PCs under management are out of warrantee, and not really able to take advantage of the new features offered," he says. "Our customers would get optimized performance, battery life and even applications, which have been redesigned for Windows 7."

7. Prepare for patch management.

Any client system management plan must include patch management. Before migrating to a new operating system, enterprise IT managers must be aware of how the upgrade will impact existing patch management procedures and also ensure they have any new and necessary policies in place before the rollout.

"Maintaining the environment would mandate proven patch management technologies. Many of the vendors offering automated features in migration packages also would be able to deploy patches on a one-to-many basis for organizations adopting Windows 7," EMA's Brasen says. "IT managers want to get to the point of doing one download of the patch from the site and distributing it out internally, essentially a process that is much faster and much less intrusive on the client devices."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.