Windows 7 is on a (slow) roll

The economy has done a number on enterprises' Windows 7 deployment plans. If you're behind, take heart -- you're not alone

Jim Thomas, director of IT operations at Pella Corp., expected to be wrapping up his Windows 7 deployment by now. The window and door maker, an early adopter of Microsoft's latest Windows PC operating system, began deployment in February 2009, just four months after the product shipped. Plans called for half of Pella's 5,000 desktop and laptop users to transition by the end of 2010, with the rest following by this December.

"We are not going to get there," Thomas concedes. Today, Pella has 1,800 machines running Windows 7. The rest remain on Windows XP, which celebrated its 10th birthday in August.

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Pella has plenty of company. Nearly two years after Windows 7 was released in October 2009, users in most enterprises remain on Windows XP, this despite Microsoft's ending mainstream support for XP over two years ago. (Most skipped Vista, XP's unpopular successor.)

In a September survey of Computerworld readers, 88 percent of respondents said they have begun or are planning a move to Windows 7. Of those who said they have already moved to Windows 7, or will, some 82 percent say their organizations are still running XP -- down from 93 percent in our January 2010 survey -- and 73 percent say they're running Windows 7.

But 55 percent of those still running XP expect to fully transition to Windows 7 by the end of 2012, and 34 percent said they would transition some time before Microsoft ends extended support for XP in April, 2014. And 11 percent said they would continue to run XP after that date. (During extended support, no-charge incident support ends, warranty claims won't be honored and design changes and feature requests aren't available.)

According to Microsoft, about one in four enterprise machines runs Windows 7 today. Erwin Visser, senior director of the Microsoft Client Commercial Group, says enterprise adoption is growing fast. But as Computerworld's survey shows, many large IT organizations are taking their time.

Most mid-sized and large organizations are at least planning for the migration, says Gartner Inc. analyst Michael Silver, and many mainstream deployments got under way either late last year or in the first half of this year.

Organizations that aren't well into testing at this point are late to the party, he says, and may face hardware and software compatibility issues as third party software and hardware support for XP phases out over the next 2-plus years. "They are the ones that will be in danger when a new app comes in that requires Windows 7, or when new machines with XP drivers start to dry up."

Unfortunately, says Silver, "There are a decent number of late organizations."

A new mindset

IT executives cite several reasons for the foot-dragging. At Pella, it's the economy. "The housing industry has not recovered [so] we have tightened down our investments," Thomas says. PC refresh cycles, which used to rotate in new machines every 3 1/2 years, have been extended out to about 5 years -- which in turn extends the timeline for Windows 7's rollout. Pella doesn't expect to see a rebound in the housing market this year - or in 2012, for that matter. But Thomas says they won't run their machines into the ground either. "I have a feeling that [the Windows 7 migration] will drag out until the end of 2012," he says -- but not beyond.

Deployment delays due to the economy aren't just limited to businesses in the housing sector. Nearly one quarter of Computerworld's survey respondents who say they have started or plan to move to Windows 7 reported that the slow economy has interfered with their usual migration schedules.

"The recession and continuing economic conditions have had an impact on our speed of deployment," says Art Sebastiano, vice president of applications at ModusLink Global Solutions, a provider of supply chain management services. At this point, about half of the firm's 3,500 machines are now on Windows 7, and Sebastiano says the IT team is kicking into high gear and hopes to be done by year's end.

Kevin Calvert, location director at WorleyParsons Ltd., which designs and builds refineries and chemical plants, says his business unit decided to keep the XP-based Dell computers used by about 500 employees as they came off lease. "During the downturn we looked at the residual value and said, 'Why don't we buy them out, keep them running and save a few bucks,'" he says.

Over the coming year he expects to bring in enough new machines to get Windows 7 penetration to 50 percent. "But the rest of the machines will have to be reimaged as we can get to them," he says.

Other firms seem to share the view that there's no rush. At Ceasar's Entertainment Inc., 99 percent of the company's 21,000 desktops and laptops remain on Windows XP. "We are a late adopter, and deliberately so. A technical requirement or business value could cause us to move faster, but there's no urgency," says Bruce Wilby, director of Wintel engineering. Instead, he says, "We see the April 2014 exit for extended [XP] support as the deadline, and we are working toward it."

Why XP could expire early

As software and hardware makers continue to roll out the next generation of computers, peripherals and software, will XP be invited to the party? Steve Kelynhans, analyst at Gartner Inc., sees 2012 as a transition year. "Right now the industry mindset is that machines built next year will not support XP," he says. That could change if most enterprises remain on XP, but the lack of driver support for new hardware will be a real risk by 2013, he says.

Software vendors are also getting antsy, according to Sam Gross, vice president of global outsourcing solutions at Unisys. "Microsoft may be ending XP support in 2014, but by and large independent software vendors are ending theirs for applications in 2013," even if software vendors are not ready to admit that publicly, he says. "That puts pressure on those whose migration plans are still in the works."

For its part, HP typically stops supporting an operating system in the consumer space two years after the version stops shipping, says Tom Shoenleber, solutions marketing manager for the LaserJet Enterprise Solutions division. Enterprise support usually lasts longer, but by any measure the extension of support for XP is one for the record books. While HP will continue to support enterprises "as long as our customers need it," support is not likely to go past 2014 and could end sooner, depending on demand.

Did Shoenleber ever expect that HP would still be writing and updating device drivers for XP at the end of 2011? "We did expect a faster transition to Windows 7," he concedes.

Sam Gross, who as vice president of global outsourcing solutions at Unisys helps corporate clients plan Windows 7 deployments, thinks companies like Caesar's might want to move the goalposts up a bit.

Hardware and software vendors are likely to drop Windows XP support well before Microsoft's own support ends [see sidebar]. "The timeframe for action is actually narrower than you think," he says.

Both Silver and Gross expect software and hardware vendors to start dropping support for XP by 2013. In other words, vendors won't test future versions of XP-related products for compatibility nor support users running their wares on that operating system.

For better or worse, there's less of a sense of urgency at this stage of the game than there has been for Windows upgrade cycles in the past, Gross says.

In fact, some organizations have been hamstrung by application software that doesn't yet support Windows 7. "A lot of vendors aren't ready until 12 months after Windows ships, for many it's 18 months, and for some verticals it can be two years," which is about where Windows 7 is now, says Silver.

Thomas' team at Pella has been able to upgrade core applications to current releases, which are now Windows 7-compatible, or tweak them to make them work. But, he says "We still have 50 one-offs out there that we haven't gotten to."

At WorleyParsons, some deployments have been held up by an old accounting application that requires Internet Explorer 6, which isn't supported in Windows 7. To get around that, Calvert is using Citrix's XenApp to deliver the application to desktops that have migrated to Windows 7 until the company can get off the software.

"The Web browser space is the biggest area of pain for the enterprise," says Gross. "The number of people still using IE 6 is mind boggling."

Hardware issues

A need for more powerful hardware delayed Qualcomm Inc.'s Windows 7 rollout. It started deployments in 2009, but management's decision to move all users to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 slowed the migration process because two-thirds of the company's 27,000 personal computers weren't beefy enough to run it. "This has required a number of upgrades to our user base," says Matt Clark, senior director of IT.

On the plus side, the failure rate of the new machines, configured with extra memory and solid state disks, has "decreased tremendously," resulting in a reduction in support costs. With 50 percent of users now on board, Clark expects to finish up by the middle of next year.

While most survey respondents say they plan to deploy Windows 7 on new hardware, fewer say they will deploy it on existing computers. But at ModusLink more than 70 percent of migrations to the 32-bit version have been upgrades on computers that are three or four years old -- and that hasn't been a bad thing. "We're getting better performance on the same hardware," says Sebastiano.

Caesar's has delayed precisely because it wants to avoid upgrading existing hardware. Wilby says the migration process from XP to 7 involves manually unloading and reloading each user's data -- a labor-intensive process. "We are moving in Windows 7 through attrition on new purchases," he says, and Caesar's is in the middle of an assessment to see if it can use desktop virtualization for machines that won't be replaced with new machines running Windows 7 before Microsoft ends support for XP. If a PC cannot be virtualized, and is not due for replacement, only then will Caesar's consider upgrading it to Windows 7, he says.

Motivating forces: Security is key

Although IT organizations aren't all finding the benefits of Windows 7 compelling enough to move quickly, most say the operating system has much to recommend it.

Sebastiano boils it down to three key benefits: Speed, stability and security. While the first two are great for users, they won't drive the deployment decision at ModusLink. In fact, many end users don't even think about the benefits. "There hasn't been a lot of wow factor from the user base," he says.

Axium Healthcare Pharmacy put its Windows 7 plans on hold more than a year ago after discovering that several major applications didn't support it, says Norbert Cointepoix, senior director of IT. He says it will be 2013 before his company is off Windows XP entirely.

But in businesses where security and data control are paramount, new security features have pushed Windows 7 migration higher on the agenda. Some 33 percent of survey respondents cite security as a key reason for migrating.

The CIO for a large US-based entertainment company, who spoke on condition that he not be named, says BitLocker disk drive encryption, included in Windows 7, has vastly improved boot times. Previously, the company was using a whole-disk encryption product that had slowed boot times on XP machines to 7 minutes. Now machines are up and running within 1 or 2 minutes. "It's a significant improvement," he says.

Despite this benefit, most of his company's nearly 10,000 users remain on Windows XP. About half should be Windows 7 before the end of 2012, with the rest following before the 2014 final XP support deadline, he says.

Pella has also started enabling BitLocker. The non-BitLocker product the company was using before required a dual-authentication process that caused problems when passwords got out of synch. "That is our number one support issue," Thomas says. In contrast, BitLocker is "almost transparent" to users, he says. Almost one third of readers say they are most interested the enterprise-specific features of Windows 7.

Other IT executives say that it's embarrassing to keep users on a 10-year old operating system when they have been running newer technology at home for years -- all consumers who have purchased new Windows computers since the Windows 7 launch in October 2009 are using the new operating system.

Windows XP is getting too old, say 64 percent of Computerworld's survey respondents, with 50 percent citing the need get into up to date as a key reason to upgrade. "We want to create a better user-base perception of IT by giving users something more current," says Calvert.

Upgrading applications

Perhaps the biggest motivator for upgrading has been the desire to modernize client-side applications. At WorleyParsons, a move to Microsoft Office 10 has been the "driving force" behind machine refreshes, Calvert says. Caesar's plans to implement Office 10, as well as Exchange Server, in tandem with its Windows 7 deployment.

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