Should You Upgrade to Windows 7?

Monday Mar 28th 2011 by James Maguire
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With some companies still hesitating to upgrade to Windows 7, a look at the possible rationale for making the leap to Windows' latest OS.

Upgrading to Windows 7 offers a number of advantages, yet some businesses continue to delay migrating. Part of that hesitation might be pure inertia – a major upgrade is no small task. That’s especially true if you’re upgrading a dozen (or several hundred) machines.

But if you’ve been running XP so long it’s now tied together with rubber band and string, you might need a nudge. Here then are seven reasons to upgrade to Windows 7 – just in case you need help convincing your colleagues it’s time to schedule the upgrade.

 

1) The Era of Windows XP Is Ending

There’s no doubt, Windows XP is the most successful operating system in the history of computers. Depending on who’s counting, there are somewhere between 400 to 500 million copies of Windows XP client systems installed, and that’s just counting the non-pirated versions. In the enterprise environment, Windows XP accounts for over 70 percent of the installed Windows operating systems.

However, the popular XP operating system was released to computer makers way back in the summer of 2001, which makes it a true dinosaur in PC years. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is making some moves to wean users from XP.

As you’ll see in this graphic, many companies are making the move to XP. As of this past summer, almost 40 percent of companies reported that migration is underway. An additional 25 percent said that migration would begin in the next six months, which means it’s underway by now. In contrast, you can add-up the companies taking their time: about 7 percent saying 1-2 years, and a hefty 12 percent they have no migration scheduled at all at this point.

As to why, specifically, companies are migrating, you see that the most common main reason -- the yellow bar graph – is that the end of mainstream support for XP is forcing them to.

 

What are the reasons your organization's client migration project?

Windows 7 upgrade reason

Source: IDC

Mainstream support for XP ended in April 2009, about two years after Vista’s release. In July 2010, Extended support for Windows XP Service Pack 2 was ended. The last gasp of Extended support goes until April of 2014, but that means the clock is ticking.

The problem, of course, is that with the end of traditional support agreements comes the end of security patches. A company that hasn’t migrated to the new OS before the end of Extended support would be leaving itself wide open for an unknown array of security problems.

Given that support is being phased out, some companies are essentially locked down with XP, trying to avoid wide deployment of any new changes or features.

Other reasons for migrating, which we’ll take a look at it, include avoiding client obsolescence, better security, increased user satisfaction, and lower operational costs and/or easier management. You’ll notice that a less common reason, but certainly one that drew positive response, is regulatory compliance; Windows 7 does have a tool that facilitates compliance, which I’ll mention later.

Among those companies planning their upgrade over the next 12 months, there’s at least one really intriguing finding:

31.6 percent plan on migrating by replacing both the hardware and the OS, which is of course a typical migration pattern. Companies refresh the OS with brand new hardware, and get an improvement boost from both a new machine and a new OS.

Interestingly, 28.9% plan on migrating just the OS, and keeping the hardware the same. This is an unusually high percentage by IDC’s count. This could mean one of two things. First, this is certainly a testament to the desire among companies to keep costs low; the recession may be over but, for many companies, the cost cutting mood remains. Second, unlike some earlier OSes, Windows 7 can run on previously built machines. So companies can get away with installing it on not-too-old PCs, and still get a something of a performance boost.

What is the time frame in which you will begin the migration cycle?

Windows 7 upgrade timeframe

Source: IDC

 

Question: Can we clear up the confusion surrounding whether you can upgrade to Windows 7 from Windows XP.

Answer: You can NOT do an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 on a PC running Windows XP. You can do a migration with the help of the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, or MDT. MDT is a free tool from Microsoft that will maintain the user’s settings and data.

 

2) Security

Many businesses identify PC security as one of their leading worries, and as we saw in the survey, it’s one of the key reasons enterprises give for updating to Windows 7.

Windows 7 offers a handful of security improvements. Probably the most noticeable for most users is the updated, more user friendly version of User Account Control, or UAC.

If you’re a Vista user, you know that when UAC was first rolled out, some users found it irritating. So much so that, if you do a Google search for User Account Control, one of the most popular links is “disable User Account Control.” Up to 15 different actions created a UAC prompt, trying the patience of some users.

Windows 7 upgrade User account control

The dreaded User Account Control.

 

In truth, some of the upset about UAC might have been overdone. But at any rate, clearly UAC has its place as a key safeguard. It limits access to a machine’s configuration options and applications to lower level, standard user privileges unless an administrator grants more. Among other things, this helps block malware. Most importantly, a security mistake by a hurried staffer can’t bring down the entire system.

Microsoft heard the complaints about Vista’s UAC and responded. Windows 7 offers a more relaxed -- some might say more flexible, or “less noisy” ----- version of UAC. It’s now easier to use and control, yet it’s still powerful enough to protect users and your larger network in essential ways. The Windows 7 UAC gives users some options to “notify me only when…”

The Windows 7 User Account Control panels setting box includes a slider to allow you to set UAC at a level that makes sense for your situation. So users can now perform all manner of common configuration options without facing a UAC prompt.

The key point is that UAC cannot be added to Windows XP, even with third party software. Given that most users in most businesses are not tech savvy, operating without this safeguard presents a real gap in security, in an age when hackers grow more skillful every month.

In addition to the improved UAC, other Windows security upgrades include the following key features:

BitLocker to Go

Bitlocker is a full volume encryption solution that protects data on desktops and laptops if the machine is stolen or accessed by unauthorized personnel. First introduced in Vista, BitLocker takes several steps forward in Windows 7. These improvements include better management of enforcement through all interfaces and new Group Policy settings that enable you to update passwords.

Additionally, Microsoft has responded to feedback from users who have said that it’s difficult to partition a drive for a BitLocker installation (particularly when the OS is already installed). In Windows 7 set-up, by default you get a separate active system partition.

Perhaps most compelling is Windows 7’s BitLocker to Go feature, which enables you to configure BitLocker Drive Encryption on USB flash drives and external hard drives.

A new Group Policy setting lets you configure removable drives as Read Only unless they are encrypted with BitLocker To Go. Also important: the data is useable on Windows Vista and XP. BitLocker to Go is undoubtedly a feature that will prove its value because protecting data on removable data drives has been one of the leading headaches of enterprise security.

 

Windows 7 upgrade bitlocker

Windows 7’s Bitlocker

(BitLocker, by the way, is only available in the Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Vista and Windows 7.)

Other security enhancements in Windows 7 include Global SACL and Granular Auditing, which lets you manage auditing for users rather than just objects, and provides more information about AccessCheck failures for file objects. This is the tool I referenced earlier that aids in compliance efforts.

And also, Windows 7 includes a new Windows Biometric Framework (WBF), which allows companies to more easily incorporate biometric authentication devices such as fingerprint readers.

Question: Operating systems and large software application are always full of useful features that people don’t use, in part because they don’t know how to use them. BitLocker to Go seems like a great idea because of the security threat posed by the popular USB drives, but how easy is it for end users to use?

Answer: Using BitLocker to Go is really pretty seamless. Once you have it up and running, it requires little from users. Files remain encrypted only when they are stored in an encrypted drive. Files copied to another drive are decrypted. You can always unlock an encrypted drive with a password.

By the way, if you’re looking for more encryption protection, some of the Dell Optiplex desktop machines come with Dell Data Protection, which encrypts on a per-file basis, and also works on removable hard drives.

 

3) Performance and Features

New features, of course, are always one of the greatest inducements to upgrade. Windows 7 offers some interesting tweaks and improved tools to enable staffers to boost productivity. These include:

Windows XP mode: Okay, so you don’t want to let go. XP Mode enables you to get the benefits of Windows 7 at the same time you use your aging business and productivity programs that require XP mode. In years past, OS upgrades often required dealing with various headaches regarding legacy apps. Now, by easily running XP in virtual mode inside of Windows, this challenge is eliminated. This backwards compatibility goes a long way toward easing staffers’ fumbles as they encounter a new OS.

(By the way, Windows XP mode is only included with Enterprise, Professional or Ultimate versions of Windows 7.) Homegroup: To enhance the small network experience, Windows 7 includes a feature called Homegroup. Homegroup lets small networks easily share files in their key folders: Music, Pictures, Videos, Documents.

Jump lists: If there’s a file, photo or site you use constantly, Windows 7 automatically adds it to an easily accessible Jump list, which you can open quickly with just two clicks.

Improved device management: Windows 7 simplifies management of peripherals like printers, cameras, and audio players. Now the information you need to know about these devices is available all in one place.

Improved file management: Windows 7’s Libraries feature allows you to find and manage files as if they were in one location, even if they’re scattered throughout various folders. Users spend less time searching.

Remote media streaming: Windows 7 allows you to access photos and videos on a remote PC, playing them as if it were resident locally.

Performance boost: Many IT managers are finding that Windows 7 runs well on both Vista-era machines as well as some of the earlier XP-era boxes. This means that, in some cases, a company can get better, faster performance on the same hardware. This is a refreshing change from years past, when companies expected to need to buy current hardware to get comparable or faster performance from an OS upgrade.

 

4) New and Future Applications

Interesting prediction by research firm IDC: “We believe Windows 7 will be the next XP.”

In other words, while the business community showed Vista only modest enthusiasm, it appears that Windows 7 will build a vast installed base that clearly has the potential to be far larger than XP. Given this, software vendors of all sizes will be developing software to leverage Windows 7’s enhanced capabilities.

This means, of course, that those companies that delay migrating to 7 will be behind the curve as the new tools and features of this next generation of software become standardized. Employee productivity will be lost and competitive edge will be lessened.

Most compelling on this front: the advent of 64-bit computing. As of June 2010, 46 percent of Windows 7 users were 64-bit. In effect, Windows 7 is heralding the arrival of 64-bit computing. This move forward will make it all that much more important to be up and running on the Windows 7 platform.

 

Windows 7 upgrade new apps

New apps will be developed to leverage Windows 7’s features.

Question: Gartner says that by 2014, 75% of all business PCs will be running 64-bit versions of Windows. What is being done to ensure that the hardware and software out there is compatible with the 64-bit version of Windows 7?

Answer: The answer here is Microsoft’s Windows Logo Program, which is the program that allows hardware manufacturers and software developers to put the Windows 7 logo on their products. It now requires hardware partners to develop 64-bit drivers, and requires software partners to create applications compatible with the 64-bit version of Windows 7. So if you see that Logo, you should be in good shape on this issue.

 

5) Support for Solid State Drives

You may have heard the buzz building about solid state drives. Prices are already falling on SSDs, and it’s likely that these units will become far more popular, eventually rivaling today’s standard, magnetic spinning disk drives. Microsoft, foreseeing this emerging trend, coded Windows 7 to work well with SSD’s.

Windows 7 supports the TRIM command, which checks with the hard drive to find its rotational speed. If that speed is 0 (which is of course the case with SSDs) it turns off features like defrag.

In response to a SSD, Window 7 disables Superfetch, ReadyBoost, and boot and application launch prefetching.

These changes enable Windows 7 to offer SSDs better performance and longer lifespan than that offered by earlier Windows OSes. While this feature may seem of limited importance now, as SSDs are more widely deployed, this support will be a major plus for Windows 7.

 

Windows 7 upgrade solid state drives

Windows 7 was developed to leverage solid state drives.

Question: Solid state drives are more popular in form factors like tablets and netbooks right now. How does Windows 7 work with netbooks?

Answer: Windows 7 works fine in the lower powered environment of netbooks. As a matter of fact if you go shopping for a netbook, you’ll find that Windows 7 is pretty much the default OS. By the way, if you have a netbook you want to install Windows 7 on, there are ways to do it even if the machine doesn’t have an internal DVD drive. You can purchase the OS and copy it to a USB flash drive, or download it from the Microsoft store as an installation file.

 

6) Direct Access

With the prevalence of remote workers and on-the-go computing, the network perimeter is already a vague boundary and at times seems to have vanished altogether.

The new Windows 7 feature DirectAccess enables workers in today’s “always on” era to more easily access their office and their work materials no matter where they are. DirectAccess replaces the sometimes cranky and unwieldy VPN with a secure connection that requires minimal user interaction. DirectAccess offers significant productivity gains by providing instant, two-way connectivity.

Direct Access leverages IPv6 and IPSec for simple and, by most accounts, secure remote computing. Direct Access was designed to be compatible with Microsoft's existing authentication systems, meaning it can be used without breaking communications with Active Directory.

To be sure, DirectAccess requires a corresponding software infrastructure to work properly. If, for instance, a company’s network is still running Windows Server 2003, or its support staff isn’t familiar with the details of IPv6 networking, DirectAccess won’t function.

But for those companies looking to best leverage an always active and geographically far-flung workforce, DirectAccess is one of Window 7’s major pluses.

 

Windows 7 upgrade direct access

Windows 7’s Direct Access feature enables better remote access (boat not included).

Question: Since we’re on the subject of mobile workers and people out of the office, what else does the combination of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 have to help workers stay connected.

Answer: Windows 7 users can use Federated search, which enables users to search remote data sources from within Windows Explorer. Windows 7 supports connecting external sources to the Windows Client using the OpenSearch protocol. The benefit is that you can point Windows Explorer to an external data source, so it’s quite handy.

One more point: Windows 7 improves first-time Folder Redirection performance by improving the connection between Folder Redirection and Offline Files. So you have shorter logon time over network connections, because the OS synchronizes redirected folder data in the background.

 

7) An Opportunity to Rethink the Enterprise Infrastructure

Clearly, companies shouldn’t migrate to Windows 7 merely because Microsoft has introduced a new product. Instead, firms should upgrade with a schedule that suits them best, making sure that the all-important, carefully considered migration plan is in place before making their move. Before migrating, firms must deal with issues like application compatibility, decide whether to do PC refreshes or in-place upgrades, and weigh the implications of what’s expected to be an OS in use throughout much of this decade.

The true value of making this plan, really, is that migrating to Windows 7 offers an opportunity to not just upgrade an OS but to fully reconsider the enterprise infrastructure. Ideally, the Windows 7 upgrade is a chance not just to make it different, but to make it better. Upgrading to Windows 7 is an opportunity to re-envision the software stack, clean the kinks from the old system, and set up a new system that works with a higher degree of reliability and manageability.

Windows 7 upgrade enterprise

Upgrading to a new OS is an opportunity to rethink your enterprise infrastructure.

 

In the best case, companies will leverage a number of third party solutions that build on Windows 7. These include security solutions like antivirus and antimalware software that interoperate with Windows 7’s improved security features. Similarly, though Windows 7 clearly has integrated backup capabilities, plenty of third party backup solutions may appeal to businesses of various sizes for cost and feature-set considerations.

Windows 7 is more of an evolution than a revolution. While Vista introduced a new kernel and a new interface, Windows 7 builds on user feedback and offers a polished system that provides some clear steps forward to offer companies value. Like Windows XP, which Windows 7 will eventually replace as the dominant desktop, Windows 7 improves on a working formula.

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