With the release of Windows 7, many IT professionals find themselves in a common situation: You've tested the new operating system and discovered that it has many advantages over its predecessors, in terms of features, performance and stability. If your company is like most, you've stuck with Windows XP as your client operating system and it's served you well for many years. Or maybe yours is one of the smaller number of businesses that took the plunge and upgraded to Windows Vista.
Either way, if you'd like to move your users to Windows 7 sooner rather than later, you'll have to make the business case. How to best go about that depends on a number of factors, including which OS you're currently using. First we'll look at how to sell the idea of migrating from Windows XP, and then we'll look at reasons to upgrade from Windows Vista.
Make the case: Migrate from XP to Windows 7
Windows XP has been one of Microsoft's biggest success story. As of September 2009, it had over 70% of the market share for desktop operating systems. However, XP was released in 2001, and eight years is an eternity in the software industry. Service packs, like plastic surgery, can only do so much to hide the inevitable effects of aging. XP doesn't have the usability features or the level of security that you get from a more modern OS, and the older it gets, the less compatible it will be with new software applications.
No more mainstream support for XP
As part of the product lifecycle, Microsoft ended mainstream support for Windows XP in early 2009. That means there will be no more service packs, design changes or new features. What you see now is what you get. When you point this out to managers, they may counter that XP extended support doesn't end until 2014. That's very true, but it only includes security updates and paid support. Hot fixes that aren't related to security require that you purchase a separate Extended Hotfix Support Agreement and pay per-fix fees.
XP die-hards miss out on new security and usability features
Meanwhile, even if you upgrade your servers, you'll be unable to use some of the new business-oriented Windows security and usability features such as DirectAccess and AppLocker, and you won't be able to protect systems and data with BitLocker drive encryption.
Windows XP was born prior to Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, and although service packs have improved its security to some degree, it lacks many of the security improvements that were built into Windows Vista and Windows 7, such as User Account Control (UAC), protected mode for Internet Explorer, Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), mandatory integrity control for processes and service hardening. The TCP/IP stack in XP is less secure, and it doesn't have the enhanced wireless security features that are included in later operating systems.
Windows 7 improves on the security enhancements in Vista and adds its own, such as BitLocker to Go, enhanced auditing, AppLocker, and DirectAccess. You have more control over how security features behave, so you can, for example, match UAC behavior to the needs of your particular environment. Windows 7 also has built-in support for biometric devices, so your company can more easily reap the benefits of biometric authentication.
Migration is easier than you think
One objection you're likely to encounter is based on the lack of an in-place upgrade path from XP to Windows 7. The idea of having to "nuke and pave," wiping out XP installations and starting from scratch with a clean installation of Windows 7, has many organizations wary of the process. However, it's not nearly as scary as some tech publications have made it out to be. Microsoft provides the User State Migration Tool (USMT) that you can use to preserve desktop and application settings, user accounts and users' data files, and migrate them to the new Windows 7 installation.
There are, in fact, an assortment of free tools from Microsoft to help you in a migration and deployment of Windows 7, including the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK), Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM), and more.
Application compatibility is no longer (as much of) an issue
One of the biggest reasons companies chose not to upgrade to Vista had to do with application compatibility. They had old apps that wouldn't install or run on Vista, or that ran more slowly or unreliably on the new OS. Windows 7 addresses that problem with "XP Mode," which is actually a free download of the new Windows Virtual PC software for Windows 7, along with a preconfigured and already licensed Windows XP VM.
Using brand new integration technology, this latest version of Virtual PC allows you to run your old XP applications on XP, but they appear in your Windows 7 Start menu and on your Windows 7 desktop, fully integrated with your Windows 7 applications. This is not your father's virtual machine technology, and it pretty much blows away any worries over application compatibility that may have been obstacles to an OS upgrade in the past.
Make the case: Upgrade from Vista to Windows 7
If your company is already running Windows Vista on the desktop, is there any reason to switch to Windows 7? Many companies and individual users have found the Windows 7 RTM to be faster and more stable than Vista, even after two service packs. Microsoft designed Windows 7 with compatibility in mind, and even without using XP Mode, a significant number of older programs that didn't work on Vista will run on Windows 7.
Not only will Windows 7 run apps that Vista won't, it will also run on hardware that won't support Vista. Many individual have been able to run Windows 7 on low powered machines that ran Vista unacceptably slowly or not at all.
Finally, you'll still need Windows 7 if your company wants to take advantage of DirectAccess, AppLocker and BranchCache (a system for caching files stored on a central server to make them more accessible to branch offices).
What makes it all worth it?
In the end, the decision to upgrade rests on one question: How will Windows 7 improve productivity and positively impact your company's bottom line? Changes to the user interface, from reworked versions of traditional Windows programs such as Calculator, Paint and WordPad to new GUI features such as Snap, Peek and Shake, as well as taskbar jumplists, many more keyboard shortcuts, and a new way to navigate the file system with libraries, can help end users get their work done faster, more enjoyably and with less reliance on third party applications.
Better performance means less time waiting for the system to respond, resulting in more output in a given amount of time. Better reliability means less downtime due to problems and crashes, both increasing productivity and reducing administrative and tech support overhead.
An increasing percentage of business computers are laptops. For mobile users, Windows 7 offers a number of benefits, including longer battery life than Vista on the same machine.
More and more companies are looking at Windows 7 with an eye toward migrating from XP or Vista. For example, after thorough testing that resulted in positive recommendations for Windows 7 from 97% of testers, Intel has announced that it will begin replacing its Windows XP computers with Windows 7 in the first quarter of 2010. The company expects to save $11 million over the next three years, thanks to the upgrade.
The key to making the business case for switching to Windows 7 lies in:
- Assessing how your users use their computers and showing how Windows 7 can make their day-to-day work easier
- Illustrating how the increased productivity that comes with a better operating system can increase revenues
- Demonstrating how the new OS can be more easily managed and thus make IT's job easier and reduce operating expenses
- Showing how new OS reliability and security features can result in less downtime and save the company money
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.