Vista or XP? How about both?

Now that Windows Vista SP1 is peeking out from around the e-corner, many "pre-SP1 adverse" organizations will probably begin the process of evaluting Vista in their organizations.  However, for the foreseeable future, there will be those that swear by Windows XP and its stability and performance.  So, who's right?  Why not both?

As much as it will pain some to admit it, Vista does have some redeeming qualities.  And, for others, Windows XP continues--and will continue--to serve a very useful purpose in the enterprise.  So, what are some of the situations in which it might make sense to run both Windows Vista and Windows XP in the organization?  And, what are the challenges involved in doing so?

In my organization, a private liberal arts college, we are considering deploying Vista on any new staff and faculty laptop computers we add to our inventory.  Desktop computers would remain on Windows XP.  Here is our reasoning:

  • Driving factor: With BitLocker drive encryption, potentially sensitive information is better protected in the event of the loss or theft of a laptop.  As such, for our initial rollout, desktop computers would not be given the Vista treatment and would stick with XP.
  • Supporting two operating systems isn't that out of the ordinary and happens often when a transition is made between OS platforms.
  • Only new laptops would get the Vista treatment and they will be outfitted with a minimum of 2GB of RAM.
  • At some point, the Vista vs. XP decision won't be a decision at all.  Eventually Vista, like Windows XP before it, will supplant its predecessor to a point at which running the legacy OS simply doesn't make sense.  If we can begin to deploy Vista on a small number of machines now, we can gauge the support impact a larger Vista migration will have without affecting users en masse.  We'd treat the laptop Vista rollout as a pilot project.
  • Our students are already coming to campus with Vista preloaded on their machines and we have to support them.  So, even though Vista isn't deployed on institutional machines outside of IT, we're, for all intents and purposes, already supporting it.

There are, of course, a number of considerations and potential challenges to overcome, including:

  • Application compatibility - will all of our necessary applications work as necessary?  Mitigation: We are testing our apps.  Apps that do not run under Vista may have upgraded versions that do work or may be run through a Terminal Server.  So far, it appears that most of our apps either run with no problems or have new versions that run with no problems.
  • System performance - Can the machines work as necessary, allowing users to remain productive?  With 2GB of RAM, Vista runs well, even with Aero enabled.  As indicated, only new machines would get the Vista treatment.  We won't retrofit any old hardware.
  • BitLocker data loss - What happens if a user's machine becomes unbootable and requires a rebuild?  If the drive is encrypted and we have to manually recover the data for some reason, how do we do so?  There are methods by which BitLocker keys can be stored in Active Directory and we're continuing to study the impact that this challenge could create.
  • More difficult to provide "loaner" machines.  Right now, when a user's laptop dies, we can simply move the hard drive to a loaner machine (unless, of course, it's the hard drive that's bad!).  Under a dual-OS scenario, this task becomes a little more difficult and may require additional loaner hardware.
  • User training.  It's Windows, but different.  Microsoft has made a number of changes to the ways that users interact with the operating system.  Some are good and some are bad, but they all affect the user.  Our support staff will need to be ready to answer questions related to interface and process changes.

My team and I are still discussing the pros and cons related to such a rollout and, at the end of the day, we might decide that it's better to push the whole thing off for another year.  This is a project that I'll keep you current on as we move through the process.  A lot of organizations are facing the same issue.