Four ways the 'new Microsoft' will change the lives of IT pros

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If you work in a traditional Windows-based shop, you could be in for a bumpy ride. Ed Bott explains how IT pros will need to adapt to a variety of changes.

After six months as CEO, there's no question Satya Nadella has put his stamp on Microsoft.

Nadella's "mobile first, cloud first" mantra provides the clearest possible clues to the company's direction. Traditional desktop and notebooks PCs running Windows desktop apps definitely take a backseat to cloud-based services and apps running on mobile devices.

For IT pros who've spent their careers in a traditional enterprise environment dominated by PCs connected on Windows-based networks, the changes will be profound.

Here are four trends every IT pro needs to watch carefully.

1: Hybrid environments will make life more complicated

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Making on-premises servers work with their cloud counterparts is the biggest challenge.

For the last two decades, one of the most important roles of any IT pro has been planning the deployment and maintenance of on-premises servers.

Increasingly, those servers are available in virtual form via cloud services from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Microsoft's Azure service is one of the most versatile of all, offering the ability to set up a new Windows or Linux server in minutes, controlled from a web-based dashboard (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

But few businesses of any size simply move everything to the cloud in one flip of the switch. Instead, you're going to have to manage hybrid environments, with some servers on premises and some in the cloud. Be prepared for extra complexity as you try to avoid the seams between the two worlds.

2: Continuous updates will change upgrade cycles

You've gotten used to monthly updates. Now get ready for quarterly upgrades.

Historically, enterprise buyers have employed the Big Bang approach to upgrades, which works in perfect harmony with the skip-every-other-release gambit. All those companies that finished migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7 in the last two years are perfect examples.

You can freeze-dry those Windows 7 PCs for the next five years or so, with only patches and updates to fix security and reliability issues. But you won't be able to do that with the next generation of hardware.

Beginning with Windows 8 and accelerating in the new Microsoft, IT pros will have to deal with operating systems that are designed for continuous improvement, with new features appearing as part of updates arriving several times per year.

Office 365 has already led the way in this regard, delivering monthly updates to the Click-to-Run subscription versions of its desktop apps like Word and Excel (Figure B).

Figure B

Figure B

Of course, every update also includes a risk that it will trigger other problems or break compatibility with an essential application or service. The fact that serious issues are fairly uncommon is small consolation when they hit your organization on a busy Monday morning and shut down crucial parts of the business.

Being able to test and deploy updates on a predictable schedule is the reason Microsoft's Patch Tuesday exists. IT pros know that a bundle of updates will arrive on the second Tuesday of each month, with advance notice of the volume of patches the week before they're released.

The release tempo for Windows and Office has increased significantly. IT pros who've adjusted to the monthly update pace will need to use the same management skills for upgrades, testing and deploying the latest release at least once a year in rolling upgrades. Bye-bye, Big Bang.

3: License management will get easier

Subscription-based licensing helps a little, but Microsoft licensing is still complex.

If Dante had worked in IT, he would have placed license management in its own circle of Hell.

Matching volume license purchases to installed hardware is practically a full-time job, with official Microsoft certifications available for licensing specialists. Purchase too many licenses and you've blown your budget. Purchase too few and you could end up facing an expensive audit or lawsuit.

The good news is that Microsoft Azure servers and other workloads are billed on a predictable metering system. Likewise, the subscription-based Office 365, with a license assigned to a user who can then move the software between multiple devices, eliminates the need to track activations or product keys.

The bad news is that the typical enterprise will still be dealing with Client Access Licenses and Windows volume licensing headaches for years to come. Staying on top of licensing changes will still be a crucial IT management skill.

4: Legacy investments can't be ignored

Those PCs aren't going to manage themselves.

By legacy investments, of course, I mean traditional desktop and notebook PCs.

Virtually all innovation in hardware and software these days appears first in mobile devices. Any traditional PC you can buy today, driven by a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad, isn't that different from its 2004 version (and yes, MacBooks are included in that category). Today's PCs are (in general) faster, quieter, smaller, lighter, and more reliable than their ancestors — but they're fundamentally the same thing.

Businesses are increasingly replacing old line-of-business software with apps and services that are driven by touchscreens, including an increasing number of iPads and other non-Microsoft platforms. That doesn't mean those boring old PCs are going to go away, however. Workers will still be pounding away on keyboards, in call centers and in corporate offices, most of them using Office and other "classic" Windows programs.

The key survival strategies for those legacy devices is to put them on autopilot, with as little maintenance as possible. Moving those workloads to virtual desktops is the most effective strategy of all.

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