IT gives Windows 7 the green light

Of IT professionals surveyed, 72 percent plan to migrate to Windows 7, with 70 percent saying they will implement it within a year

Jim Thomas said no to Windows Vista -- but Windows 7 is an entirely different matter.

Thomas, CIO at Pella, says his IT team began beta-testing Vista's successor a year ago as an upgrade path from Windows XP. By October, just two months after Windows 7 launched, the Pella, Iowa-based window and door manufacturer had 225 Windows 7 clients up and running -- and the feedback from both the IT staff and end users has been generally positive.

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Pella is ready to move forward, Thomas says. "We will have 50 percent of our users -- that's 2,500 machines -- deployed on Windows 7 in 2010," he says. By the end of next year he expects to have 90 percent of his users on the new operating system.

This time, IT organizations say, it looks like Microsoft has delivered the goods. And just in time. About 80 percent of IT organizations didn't adopt Vista, according to research firm Gartner Inc. Instead, the vast majority of enterprise users remain on Windows XP, an eight-and-a-half-year-old operating system that should have passed into the high-tech fossil record long ago.

Computerworld surveyed 285 IT professionals to gauge their attitudes and intentions regarding Windows 7. Overall, 72 percent of the respondents said they plan to migrate to Windows 7, with 70 percent saying that they will implement it within a year or that they already are installing it.

The No. 1 reason cited for upgrading: to get off of Windows XP. That said, almost 40 percent of the survey respondents reported that they will continue using XP until Microsoft stops supporting it -- in April 2014 -- before they install Windows 7 on all of their Windows machines.

However, those willing to wait that long are in the minority. "We're ready to move on," says Paul Shane, IT director at the Philadelphia office of Milliman Inc., an actuarial consulting firm based in Seattle. He avoided Vista, but he expects to have most of his 150 desktops and laptops on Windows 7 by the end of this year. Disappointed with Vista, Shane briefly considered moving to Macs and the OS X operating system. But now, he says, "we've cast those aside."

Thomas and Shane both say they aren't even going to wait for the first service pack, which Gartner analyst Michael Silver says customers can expect sometime this summer.

What IT wants

For IT, Windows 7 is an opportunity to take advantage of new features and better integration. Windows Server and Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager, in particular, can save money by requiring fewer pieces of management software and can make managing desktops easier.

Art Sebastiano, vice president of infrastructure at ModusLink Global Solutions Inc. in Waltham, Mass., has been testing Windows 7 on a few dozen machines for a rollout on 3,500 PCs in 30 locations around the world. He says Windows Server's account credential (password) caching capability, which facilitates single sign-on and allows access to networked resources when a domain controller is unavailable, works better with Windows 7 clients.

"Driver support and legacy compatibility have been good," Sebastiano says, adding that Microsoft offers a downloadable XP Mode program to facilitate backward compatibility.

Shane says group policy controls are improved in Windows 7. "We really love the new client group policy. You can manage a lot of things through group policy now that used to require a log-in script," he says.

At University HealthSystem Consortium in Oakbrook, Ill., a new Windows 7 feature called DirectAccess, which allows secure remote access without a separate VPN client and log-in, is a big win. Donald Naglich, director of technology infrastructure, says that for the half of his 275 users who use laptops, remote access will become more seamless. "It's one of the main reasons we want to [move to] Windows 7," he says. "It's one less piece of software we have to worry about from an integration standpoint." He plans to start migrating to Windows 7 early next year and hopes to have all systems upgraded by the end of 2011.

Pella is considering deploying DirectAccess for the same reasons. "Users don't like having to remember to launch a VPN client and log in," Thomas says.

Both Pella and Milliman see BitLocker, a Windows 7 feature that provides full volume encryption, as a solid win for laptop users. "We used a third-party product that didn't integrate well with Windows and had a separate password," says Shane. "Now we can secure laptops, and the encryption and security is transparent to the user."

The User Interface

IT executives say Windows 7 boots up faster than Vista, is more stable and removes the intrusive user access control pop-ups. But most end users didn't have Vista, so they tend to compare the Windows 7 user interface to Windows XP's.

ModusLink's Sebastiano says that on the whole, his users like the interface, particularly features like drag-and-drop "snap" resizing of windows for easy side-by-side comparisons, and taskbar previews.

But Shane says his users are split on the new taskbar -- "People either love it or hate it." It's a challenge, he says, because he has users who can't navigate the Start menu in Windows XP to find programs. "If it's not a shortcut on the desktop, they're in trouble," he notes. He fears that another change to the taskbar may just add to user confusion.

Users also don't always understand Windows 7 libraries, a setup that replaces the standard folder metaphor with a more sophisticated model that allows groupings of files that may be stored in different locations. What's more, File Explorer defaults to the local library -- even if you don't want users pointed there. Shane says that even administrators may find it annoying at first. "When you're rolling out a bunch of PCs on a network, it gets in the way," he says.

Shane says his users like Windows 7's interface improvements, such as those Sebastiano described, and more subtle changes, such as the way Windows automatically makes desktop icons bigger on larger screens with higher resolution. "That has helped users with poor eyesight," he says.

Users particularly like what he calls the "shake and bake" feature on the Aero desktop that lets the user minimize all open windows on-screen except for the currently selected one by simply grabbing and shaking that window from side to side.

Such features have been well received, "but users have to be told about them," he says.

Thomas warns that a migration from XP to Windows 7 will require some training. "Users haven't always gotten value from the tools we shove their way," he says. "This time we're spending more time upfront trying to understand where the values are and actually promoting that."

Remaining challenges

Given a choice between bringing in Windows 7 on new machines and upgrading old ones, most organizations prefer the former. Most (58 percent) of the survey respondents, however, said they will also upgrade at least some existing machines.

One way to avoid replacing PCs is to use virtualization technologies. Naglich plans to do exactly that at University HealthSystem Consortium. And he's not alone in considering the use of desktop virtualization to ease the transition to Windows 7. Nearly one in five (18 percent) of IT professionals surveyed said they plan to move at least some Windows XP users from traditional Windows PCs to hosted virtual desktops as they migrate to Windows 7.

For existing hardware that meets Windows 7 system requirements, the usual upgrade issues apply. "Fresh installs are quick," Sebastiano says. On the other hand, while a Vista upgrade to Windows 7 is fairly straightforward, getting user profiles and settings moved over from XP is more challenging. He's looking at using Laplink Software Inc.'s PCmover to handle that.

Application compatibility is another potential challenge, particularly for older software. That's something Axium Healthcare Pharmacy Inc. may have to deal with. The online specialty pharmacy uses several internally developed Visual Basic 6 applications that won't run on Windows 7, not even with the XP Mode software. "A lot of ActiveX controls don't play at all," says Norbert Cointepoix, director of IT at Lake Mary, Fla.-based Axium.

But Matt Okuma has found that some applications run better. Okuma, enterprise architect at Best Technology Services, a business unit of Pacific Coast Building Products Inc. in Rancho Cordova, Calif., says his Cisco Unified Communications software never worked properly on about 100 of the Vista machines he rolled out. Some of those, he says, had to be rolled back to Windows XP. With Windows 7, however, it runs just fine. "We love it. Everything just works," he says.

"The biggest issue is making sure you do application compatibility testing," Pella's Thomas says. Pella's IT staff has had to update software releases and work through issues on some of the company's approximately 400 applications. Pella is still doing compatibility testing; it started with the applications used by the greatest number of employees. "Our issue has been on older apps that didn't necessarily follow current development guidelines," Thomas says, explaining that the company had to make "small adjustments" on approximately 20 percent of its applications, or get updates if newer releases were available.

In general, he says, "we haven't had too many applications that we haven't been able to get running."

Overall, after living with XP for more than eight years, IT leaders at most organizations say they finally feel comfortable moving on. Shane says he expects the transition at Milliman to go smoothly. "It's not something completely new," he says. "They just made a better Vista."

This story, "IT gives Windows 7 the green light" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.