Windows 8 Release Preview: Enterprise Features Worth Evaluating

For CIOs deploying Windows 7, the Windows 8 Release Preview may be an afterthought. But tablet-friendly Windows 8 delivers security, networking and mobile features that enterprise IT should test now to implement later.

The Windows 8 Release Preview, available as of May 31, is one of the last steps before the new OS launches "for the holidays", to quote a company blog post by Windows president Steven Sinofsky.

If past Windows release dates are any indication, Windows 8 will launch in October.

The Release Preview comes with new features and functions for the new Metro user interface, including the ability to more easily group tiles and apps on the Start screen and pin subsections of an app such as a stock ticker from the Finance app to the Start screen as well.

The Release Preview has also brought more sports, travel and news apps from both Microsoft and its partners to the updated Windows App Store. Additionally, the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 has been tweaked in the Windows 8 Release Preview with an integrated touch-friendly Adobe Flash Player and the "do not track" privacy setting in IE10 has been turned on by default.

This is all well and good for consumers, but what about the enterprise? Windows 8 in general, whether it's running on x86 chips from Intel and AMD or on ARM-based processors, is considered to be targeted at consumers. After all, Microsoft is adjusting to a world where consumers (employees) are using their own tablets and smartphones, mobile apps and virtualization technologies for work purposes.

So does Windows 8 have a place in the enterprise?

For the time being, Windows 7 remains the stable and well-liked OS being deployed at enterprise-level companies, and Windows 8 will be hard-pressed to directly compete with it, say industry analysts.

Nevertheless, Windows 8 delivers security, networking and mobile features for a wider range of devices deeming it something IT pros and business users should evaluate now to implement later.

Windows to Go

This new feature allows the entire Windows 8 OS to run on any Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 desktop from a USB flash drive or external USB Hard Drive.

Once the Windows 8 system is booted from the USB stick, it is managed and secured by standard enterprise management tools such as SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) and Active Directory group policies. The best use case for Windows to Go is for contract workers or freelance employees who need access to the OS and apps, but not all of the permissions relegated to full-time employees.

Windows to Go is also a good way to evaluate Windows 8 on your PC without eradicating your current operating system.

Here are details on how to create a Windows to Go USB drive.

Security and Networking Features

Microsoft has been emphasizing the security features baked into Windows 8 to contrast the somewhat security-challenged Android and iOS and to underscore Microsoft depth as an enterprise vendor.

Some new Windows 8 security features include Trusted Boot, which prevents malware from creeping in during boot ups and before any of the OS components are launched.

Microsoft has also improved BitLocker drive encryption in Windows 8 so that it encrypts only parts of the disk drive that need it, thereby speeding up the process and worker productivity. By default in the Windows 8 Release Preview, users will be able to change the BitLocker PINs and passwords for the first time and help reduce IT help desk calls for lost PINs.

Security policy feature AppLocker has improved in Windows 8 to protect users from running unauthorized software that could lead to malware infections.

On the networking side, Windows 8 includes improvements to DirectAccess, a mobile access technology and VPN replacement introduced in Windows 7 and Branch Cache, a technology that saves bandwidth by speeding up the access of remote files stored on a corporate network. Windows 8 also has built-in mobile broadband features that natively support 3G and 4G.

Windows 8 Tablets

Microsoft has not revealed much about its Windows RT ARM-based tablets; it is more apt to promote its Windows 8 tablets running on x86 chips from Intel or AMD because they will be compatible with the entire Windows 7 line of business and productivity apps and will give IT groups the ability to manage and secure them.

Windows 8 tablets and tablet/laptop hybrids built on Intel and AMD architecture will be in retail stores in November, according to a CNET story that cites a source close to Windows 8 device makers.

Despite the obvious design, hardware and pricing challenges of competing with the iPad, Microsoft and partners do have the advantage of an established Windows base, especially in the business world.

If a Windows 8 tablet or hybrid can run the same software and apps that business users and consumers use on their traditional PCs and make the experience fast and fluid, Windows 8 tablets have a chance to transcend the tablet pack.

There are still lots of unknowns such as price and form factor design, but it's worth it for CIOs to keep an eye on Windows 8 tablets and consider waiting until November before investing in them.

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at soneill@cio.com

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