I was around during the days of the tech industry’s move from 16-bit to 32-bit computing.  Although it was chaotic at times, I don’t remember things being quite as convoluted as they seem to be today.  Of course, I could be remembering incorrectly!

Today, IT leaders are considering mass migrations to new operating systems, new Office suites and to new 64-bit architectures.  On the surface of things, answers to these questions may seem easy, but as you dig deeper, things aren’t quite so clear.

Vista vs. XP

You’ve probably read article after article from IT pundits indicating that Vista isn’t ready for prime time.  And, in this section, you’ll read yet one more opinion on this matter.  Quite frankly, I really like Microsoft products, so it’s disappointing to write something negative about what should have been one of the company’s crown jewels.

Vista isn’t ready for prime time.  This opinion is not based on reading articles or watching the news.  It’s based on experience and fact.  I’ve been running Vista since the day it became available on Microsoft’s licensing download site.  Prior to that, I experimented a bit with the beta releases.  To say that Vista is buggy and unreliable is the understatement of teh year.  My main reason for running Vista on my office machine was to better familiarize myself with the product.  At home, however, I needed to be able to use RAM beyond 4 GB, so I installed the 64-bit version.  Although my main need–the ability to access RAM beyond the 4 GB barrier–has been satisfied, the overall experience hasn’t been smooth.  Drivers haven’t been a problem, either.  I run a Dell Precision 690, so my driver needs are pretty standard.  I’m not running anything weird.  However, other things simply don’t work right.  For example, on this system, I’m also running Office 2007 and I’m not able to save files using some of the new file formats.  In particular, Excel is a mess.  I can save files just fine in XLS format, but not in XLSX.  OneNote?  Forget it.  The cache is corrupt, so until I can rebuild my system, I’m running OneNote in a 32-bit virtual machine.  Of course, Ive Googled my problem until my fingers hurt, but nothing has yet rectified the problem.  Permissions problems?  Yep.  At times, I get random “access denied” errors to my stuff.  At first glance, some may say that I have serious virus or spyware problems or that I screwed up the install somehow.  But, with almost 15 years of deep Windows experience and an MCSE, I’m pretty confident in my ability to install Windows and clean my machine.  Between my own experience, as well as the experiences of my staff and the feedback we’ve gotten from our user base, we’re sticking with Windows XP for the foreseeable future.

Office 2007 and permissions on my XP machine?  Smooth sailing all the way.

That said, Microsoft has made a lot of noise lately about end-of-lifing Windows XP based on their product support cycle.  Personally, I think Microsoft does a pretty good job supporting older products and feel that, by the time a product is no longer supported, there is a viable replacement on the market.  This time, however, Microsoft needs to take a hard look at the market and the feedback they’ve received and be honest with themselves.  After a ton of time developing Vista, I can imagine that the last thing Microsoft wants to do it publicly admit that it’s not the product it was supposed to be and their sales figures seem to back them up.  It’s important to note, though, that new PCs that are shipped with Vista and then downgraded to Windows XP, are counted as Vista sales.  Westminster College this year purchased around 90 computers with Windows Vista.  Every single one was downgraded to XP.  Now, I know that 90 computers is a miniscule fraction of PC sales, but we’re far from the only organization with a similar downgrade policy that purchased computers with Vista.

If Microsoft sticks with their original plan, we may all be forced to the Vista bandwagon whether we want to ride it or not.  Even though our experience thus far hasn’t been stellar, we’ll continue to evaluate the system for an eventual deployment.  Maybe Vista will stabilize at some point before Windows 7 is released.  By the way, for Windows 7, I’d love to see Microsoft jettison built-in backward compatibility in favor of a totally revamped operating system and use their Virtual PC/Virtual Server/HyperV layer to achieve backward compatibility as an optional component.  I seem to recall that another computer manufacturer went down this road a while back with great success.

32-bit vs. 64-bit computing

At the same time that organizations are considering their Vista plans, the 32-bit to 64-bit migration possibility is on the table.  From what I’ve seen, heard and experienced, most organizations are staying with 32-bit on the desktop and moving to 64-bit slowly in the data center.  Again, Microsoft has not necessarily made the migration decision a no-brainer.  In some cases, 64-bit isn’t optional.  For example, if you want to run Exchange Server 2007, in production, you need 64-bit Windows whether you want it or not.  But, the choice isn’t always so clear cut.  Imagine, for example, an organization that has made the decision to move to 64-bit Windows for its SQL Server 2005 databases, but is sticking with 32-bit for other servers–perhaps they’ve virtualized some of their environment on Virtual Server 2005, which doesn’t support 64-bit guests.

It’s a sensible move, but not without its own complications.  Take System Center Essentials, for example.  Before System Center Essentials SP1 was released, SCE couldn’t run in “mixed mode”.  That is, if SCE was 32-bit, the database server had to be 32-bit as well.  These kinds of incompatibilities make organizations very wary about moving to a new platform, and reasonably so.  Who wants incompatibilities where there simply should be no problem?  Why would products be released at this point that have such obvious lack of interoperability in reasonable environments?  Sure, with SCE SP1, 32-bit/64-bit mixed mode operation is now possible, but there simply has to be more emphasis on making sure that every new product can run where it needs to run–out of the gate.  IT folks are always asked to do more with less and with less time than we had in the past.  Make our lives a bit easier!

Even today, Windows Home Server connector software and Microsoft’s Groove clients do not support 64-bit clients.

So, what’s the solution?  Careful research and a good plan.  If you need Groove, you can’t go to 64-bit Vista.  If you need 32-bit SCE, make sure you have a compatible database server and so on.  You may still get frustrated because a particular combination doesn’t work, but at least you won’t be surprised.

Now, I’ve done a lot of Microsoft bashing in this posting, which isn’t my modus operandi.  As I stated earlier, I actually like Microsoft’s product a whole lot and find them to be excellent solutions.  Although we’re facing some serious transitional pain today, I’m confident that Microsoft will learn from its mistakes and release a Windows 7 that is truly innovative and will continue to recognize the importance of 64-bit and better synchronize their 32/64-bit platforms.