Is Windows 7 really worth the investment?

ROI trumps 'cool' features every time in the business world. Can Windows 7 bring both to the table? Yes, even if not immediately

The concept of return on investment (ROI) goes back to the beginning of time and is perhaps best defined by Machiavelli in the phrase "the ends justify the means." As IT and users alike prepare for the rollout of Windows 7, that same cold calculation has to be made on when, if not whether, to move to Windows 7. The question is simple: Will my investment in purchasing, rolling out, and training for Windows 7 provide my business with a positive ROI?

In the current troubled economy, it is difficult to justify spending additional funds for what may be simply turn out to be eye-candy enhancements. The fact is, if your users are functioning well and you have limited issues with your current XP or Vista environment (but let's be realistic -- few companies have adopted the latter OS), you will not likely get a measurable and appreciable ROI in a move to Windows 7.

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Note: There are credible tools and spreadsheets that can help you assess and quantify the costs and benefits of moving to Windows 7. One that I've found to be quite extensive and useful comes from Hall Consulting and Research. Here is a link to the brand new HCR Windows 7 ROI Assessment Tool. And when you are ready to make the move to Windows 7, I encourage you to read my InfoWorld how-to guide "Ready for Windows 7? Here's how to deploy it right," which is also available in a Kindle version for Kindle owners and iPhone owners who have the Kindle app installed.

Where Windows 7's ROI is likely to come from
So where will a ROI come from with Windows 7? Certainly not from the new AeroShake capability or the Scenic Ribbon interface changes to WordPad or Paint. However, enhancements to features such as BitLocker encryption and the add-on Bitlocker-to-Go make a very solid case for deploying Windows 7 for your traveling business users.

According to Gartner, a laptop is stolen every 53 seconds. The belief is that half of the data breaches suffered by companies have come from lost or stolen laptops, mobile devices, and USB flash drives. And it is believed that 60 percent of the corporate data that administrators seek to protect is walking around with your people on their laptops each day. BitLocker (which encrypt your PCs) and BitLocker-to-Go (which encrypts USB devices such as drives and flash memory fobs) can reduce or even eliminate your data-loss fears. If you're subject to privacy breach-disclosure notification laws, an investment in Windows 7 to get BitLocker could save you millions in fines and notification costs later.

But what about the other great Windows 7 features we keep hearing about, such as DirectAccess, BranchCache, and AppLocker? Each of these features will provide a modicum of benefit for your organization. But to get it, you have to also plan on a Windows Server 2008 R2 deployment (not necessarily a full-forest upgrade) to take advantage of those features. (Read my article "Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2: Joined at the hip" to see how these two products will benefit each other.)

You will upgrade sooner or later -- so how do you plan when?
The fact is that the move to Windows 7 is inevitable. You may have fought the Windows Vista movement and won to some degree, but whether by placid consent or through kicking and screaming, you will eventually move to Windows 7. The real question is not if but when.

Most organizations would plan a move to a new OS for the SP1 timeframe because they still believe in the bogus SP1 milestone deployment routine, that SP1 is the "real" and "stable" version of the OS. But with patches and hotfixes typically deployed though Windows Update on each system or universally through a Windows Update Services server, service packs are no longer the key factor in determining your deployment timeline.

Keep in mind that Windows 7 is not an entirely new OS. It is an update to Windows Vista that is, at the core, so slight that organizations are finding that their software and hardware, if Vista-capable, automatically work with Windows 7 99.9 percent of the time. Thus, waiting for hardware and software vendor support may not be a gating factor for deployment. I say "may" because, according to Gartner, even if an application seems to run on Windows 7, vendors may be unwilling to commit to Windows 7 compatibility and, thus, withhold support if their apps are run on Windows.

That's tricky territory. If your company policy is to hold off until a critical application vendor says, "Yes, we support Windows 7," you may be stuck for several months or even several years. You might also discover that some vendors don't want to support the version you have but instead want to use Windows 7 compatibility as the hammer to force you to upgrade to a new version -- costing you more money -- even though you know full well that the current version runs just fine on Windows 7. That's part of the vendor game; everyone wants a piece of the pie when money is being tossed around.

For applications that truly don't run well on Windows 7, you do have the option (unlike in Vista) to run them in the new XP Mode environment that comes with Windows 7. Technically, using XP Mode may bypass the policies you have in place regarding vendor support if these apps are running in a virtual XP environment; be sure to check that out before you deploy them this way.

You might also consider some of the tools that Microsoft is releasing to assist with these issues, such as Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), which can help organizations upgrade to Windows 7 even if their apps are not yet supported or functional in the new OS.

Bells and whistles aside, Windows 7 can provide a solid ROI for those companies that decide to cash in on the combination of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Perhaps those benefits don't justify the cost of deployment today, and it might make more sense for you to wait the 12 to 18 months that analyst firms such as Forrester Research and Gartner recommend before making the move. But don't forget to factor in the "soft" benefits. After all, many users will have Windows 7 at home and find that the cartoony 2001 XP system at work to be less and less familiar -- and productive -- over time. If you can see a Windows 7 deployment in your future, make it as near a future as you can.

Do the ends justify the means in your organization for Windows 7? Please let me know.

This story, "Is Windows 7 really worth the investment?," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Windows 7 and in Windows in general at