Planning For Your Vista Deployment: A First Look at the New OS's Features

Microsoft’s first major operating system upgrade in five years, Windows Vista, is expected to hit the retail shelves in January.

Originally scheduled for 2003, Vista’s release date was pushed back many times due to development delays. And the delays have created openings for the growth of competitors, such as Apple on the desktop and Linux on the server. But Microsoft’s market share remains overwhelming. Like it or not, Vista will eventually become Microsoft’s default OS. So the question is not whether you’ll be making the switch to Vista, but when.

In fact, if your company has a volume licensing agreement with Microsoft, you’ll have a chance to upgrade to the client version of Vista as early as November, when the operating system will be shipped to computer manufacturers and other large customers. (The server version of Vista, still nicknamed Longhorn, isn’t scheduled to ship until 2007.)

Still, there are good reasons why IT managers are saying "wait and see." Upgrades are time-consuming and expensive, requiring lots of testing, training and support. Then there’s the hardware. Vista’s almost certainly not going to run well on older machines.

"IT managers probably won’t make the investment [in upgrading] until after Vista has been on the market for awhile," says Jim Michael, secretary of the board of directors of Share, an IBM users’ group with more than 2,000 member companies representing a majority of the Fortune 500. "You may not see widespread enterprise deployment until after the first service pack comes out." And that could be as much as a year after Vista first ships.

But you’d better begin planning now. Once the OS is widely available, end users (like your CEO) will start asking about it. It will begin showing up on new desktops and laptops. And, if there’s a major security attack aimed at legacy Windows XP systems, you could find yourself under very serious pressure to upgrade fast.

Security and Manageability

Vista offers some enticing features for CIOs. Perhaps primary among them are its numerous security enhancements. "This is an operating system that was built and architected in the age of the Internet," says Michael Gartenberg, VP and research director for JupiterResearch. In contrast to Windows XP, Vista will be much more resistant to Internet-based attacks, he says.

Vista also offers authentication via smart cards in addition to user name and password checking, provides more nuanced user account restrictions and offers strong, hardware-based encryption, which can protect documents when an employee’s laptop is stolen. It will also make it easier for developers to customize their own authentication strategies with biometrics and tokens.

Almost equally important are Vista’s management features. "Vista will help ease the pain of deploying, supporting and managing desktops," says Michael Burk, a product manager in the Windows client division of Microsoft. Microsoft claims that administrators will be able to control desktop settings remotely via command line, eliminating the need for your IT staff to visit every desktop when, for instance, it’s time to upgrade client virus-scanning software. To streamline installation, Vista will ship with a suite of disk imaging and installation tools so IT departments can configure standard installations easily and then copy them onto new computers with a minimum of fuss.

A Shiny New Interface

Vista’s new interface and multi¿media features may be the system’s most visible enhancements. Windows XP is looking a little long in the tooth, and Vista’s new Windows Aero interface is a lot slicker (and a lot more Mac-like), with transparent windows and a variety of 3-D effects.

All those effects require fairly serious graphics processing power. However, there’s an option for systems with slower video subsystems. If a PC’s graphics processor can’t handle Aero, the user can turn it off, defaulting to a plainer but less resource-intensive interface.

Still, it’s unlikely that the new interface is going to be a major factor in a CIO’s decision to upgrade. "OK, so it’s a cooler-looking Windows interface. I’m not sure where the big payback for the enterprise is for a cooler-looking Windows interface," says Share’s Michael.

Two for the Business

Windows Vista will ship with two business-oriented versions: Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise. "Windows Vista Business edition is optimized for small to medium-sized businesses, but it’s designed to meet the needs of organizations of all sizes," says Microsoft’s Burk. Vista Business will include IT management tools, end user search tools for organizing and sorting through large quantities of business documents, and Tablet PC support.

Vista Enterprise is aimed at larger organizations and adds enhanced application compatibility tools, disk image management tools (for creating and distributing standard installations), and the ability to run Unix applications on Vista PCs. Vista Enterprise will be available only to corporate customers that are enrolled in Microsoft’s Software Assurance program or a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement.

Proceed with Caution

If there aren’t compelling business reasons to make the switch to Vista in 2006, consider putting it off. Alternatively, you can let Vista creep into your enterprise gradually as you buy new systems that have the OS preinstalled, recommends Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.

One reason for taking it slowly is that Vista’s hardware requirements are steeper than those for Windows XP, and that means a lot of your old computers won’t have enough horsepower to handle it. Although Microsoft has published its requirements list for Vista, Enderle has compiled his own list (see "Vista Systems Requirements," at right). But, he acknowledges, "the ideal hardware will be designed for Windows Vista—and that won’t show up until the fourth quarter of this year."

Even if you’re not planning on installing Vista for a year or more, you still should pay attention to its hardware requirements. "Anyone who’s buying hardware this year needs to consider getting hardware that’s sufficient for Windows Vista," says Ann Westerheim, president of Ekaru, a technology service provider for small and midsize businesses. That’s because the typical corporate PC has a three-year lifespan, and over the next three years, you’ll almost certainly need to run Vista.

And don’t underestimate the amount of work an operating system overhaul can require in a large enterprise. "Those of us who have done it will tell you it’s never painless," says Jeff Reed, CTO of Logicalis, an enterprise IT service provider.

Time to Get Ready

Now is the time to start learning about Vista by studying the product details that Microsoft has published on its main site and on the Microsoft Developer Network site (see msdn.microsoft.com/windowsvista). If you can get into Microsoft’s beta program, you will gain firsthand experience with Vista and, even more importantly, can begin testing its compatibility with your company’s key applications. Once the OS ships, you want to be prepared with an upgrade plan—and you will be upgrading, sooner or later.

"It’s a question of whether you want to deal with a bunch of patches and fixes for XP when you can get everything that’s already incorporated into Vista," says Gartenberg. Microsoft says it will continue to maintain Windows XP and is planning to issue Service Pack 3 for XP in the second half of 2007, but the trend is clear: Vista is coming and will eventually replace XP.

The pressure will only increase in January, when (or if) Vista hits retail shelves. "Right now, Windows XP, with all its foibles, is working OK. IT managers are not chomping at the bit to rip the thing out by the roots," says Enderle. "But that could change dramatically once this thing ships."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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