Four steps to a successful Windows Vista migration

What Microsoft’s Windows Vista has lacked in rates of universal corporate adoption to date, the operating system has certainly made up for in widespread notoriety and critical press coverage.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Vista or a scheme to avoid migrating from the much-loved XP: “Windows Is Broken.” “Should Microsoft Throw Away Vista?” “Microsoft’s Vista Plan: Throw More Lipstick on the Pig.” “Save Windows XP!”

Despite the persistent bark of anti-Vista sentiment from unenthusiastic enterprises and the Microsoft-hater faction, the Microsoft and Vista caravan has driven on (and the June 30th deadline to stop selling XP licenses remains unchanged.)

In late April Microsoft announced that is had sold more than 100 million Windows Vista licenses since its consumer debut in January 2007.

So, clearly, someone has upgraded to Vista. (Of course, consumers buying new PCs have had less choice in the matter than enterprises.)

A recent report from Forrester Research, “Lessons Learned From Early Adopters Of Windows Vista,” offers four tactics and strategies for those losing sleep over their upcoming Vista migrations.

“Although most of these challenges-namely hardware and software compatibility-aren’t new with Windows Vista,” writes Forrester analyst Benjamin Gray, “many of the workarounds companies deployed are.”

Four Keys to Vista Migration Success

Hundreds of businesses worldwide have successfully deployed Windows Vista, and thousands more are preparing to do the same, Gray notes in the report. “But because adoption has been cautious, it’s been a challenge for companies to learn from early adopters.” Research from November 2007 showed that slightly more than half of the enterprises Forrester surveyed don’t yet have Windows Vista deployment plans, Gray notes. Others are simply taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

Even with such a large base of reluctant enterprises, Forrester has been able to gather lessons from those who have migrated. “Most of the challenges that companies experienced were compatibility issues,” Gray writes.

“But with support from Microsoft, client management solutions, third-party software vendors and client virtualization vendors, companies are discovering workarounds to the most common migration challenges.”

From conversations with IT department staffers whose companies have successfully deployed Vista, Forrester offers these four best practices.

1. Tie the OS upgrade to your company’s natural PC refresh cycle. Because of Vista’s substantial hardware requirements, companies should “approach their OS migration and upcoming PC refresh cycle as one consolidated project,” Gray writes. For example, companies should upgrade existing PCs to 2 GB of memory for use with Vista, but limit the upgrades to PCs that are less than 18 months old.

“Desktop operations professionals should rely heavily on Microsoft’s free Windows Vista Hardware Assessment tool to test their network-connected machines for compatibility,” Gray writes.

In addition, he recommends using the tool in concert with your company’s asset-tracking technologies to determine how many machines are out there and which ones need an upgrade.

For older machines that are not cost effective to upgrade, Gray points out that client virtualization may provide a workable alternative. “Essentially, treat the thick clients as thin by relocating the data, operating system, and applications into your data center and the local processing into your servers.

This allows users to access a virtual Windows Vista environment-apps included-on hardware that couldn’t otherwise process it locally,” Gray writes. “However, treat this as a temporary solution to solve a pressing problem, rather than a permanent re-architecture of your computing environment.

If you do re-architect your client infrastructure, think holistically rather than trying to alleviate a particular limitation with some users.”

2. Beware of application compatibility hiccups. “Application compatibility issues are always among the biggest headaches when migrating operating systems,” Gray notes. There are two types of applications at risk: Those developed by third parties, and those developed in-house. “Early adopters cited challenges running applications from vendors like security giants McAfee and Symantec, networking vendors Cisco and Nortel, and productivity enablers Adobe and IBM,” he writes. “But most of these problems have since been resolved, and at last check Microsoft touts that more than 2,300 applications have been certified for Windows Vista.”

In addition, Gray states that early adopters said they relied heavily on Microsoft’s free tool, called the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT), and client management suites, such as those from CA, LANDesk, Novell and Symantec, to identify compatibility issues on Windows Vista.

“If your application won’t ever be Windows Vista-certified and replacement is not an option, turn to local desktop virtualization or application virtualization technologies,” Gray suggests.

“Local desktop virtualization allows older apps to run in a virtualized Windows XP or Windows 2000 container that runs on top of the machine’s Windows Vista host operating system. Application virtualization enables applications to run in isolated environments either locally or on the server and is abstracted from the host OS, ensuring compatibility.”

3. Rework software developed in-house to combat installation and user rights challenges. With Windows XP, Gray notes that most companies were forced to standardize their workers on the administrator account. “Why? Because the standard user account didn’t have enough administrative privileges to accomplish menial tasks, like changing the time zone or connecting to an unsecured wireless network,” he writes.

Microsoft elevated the administrator rights in Windows Vista’s standard user account, “meaning most employees can now live with it,” Gray notes. “However, custom applications are proving to be a significant hurdle for compatibility with Windows Vista.” Because users will no longer have full administrative rights, IT departments need to rework applications to reflect this change.

“You can simplify the process by using ACT or client management tools to identify applications that require administrator rights to write to the now-protected Program Files folder or Windows Registry,” Gray writes. “But these tools are stopgap solutions.

The only way to proactively ease the burden that in-house-developed applications create is to bring your developers in on the deployment process as early as possible. And evaluate turning to local desktop virtualization in cases of emergency.”

4. Carefully configure User Account Control (UAC) to avoid ticking off users. Forrester clients frequently expressed concerns over deploying Windows Vista with UAC enabled and experiencing a backlash from their users who are annoyed with the frequent interruptions, Gray notes. “These interruptions are designed to trigger when a user attempts to install an application, thus ensuring IT has full control over which applications are allowed on the machine,” he writes. “The primary concern is that these incessant warnings will make users complacent about granting access to every prompt.”

Gray notes that these user concerns are valid. “It’s important that you build in extra time during the discovery and testing phases of the Windows Vista migration to ensure you have UAC properly configured for each user category. And for legacy applications that mistakenly trigger UAC, well, this needs to get fixed,” Gray writes. “With luck, it’s a simple matter of upgrading or patching the application, but it could involve abandonment, a recode, or a client virtualization workaround.

In the meantime, Microsoft has built in support for file system and registry virtualization to ease the migration over the short term.”

Will Vista Generate Interest in Desktop Virtualization?

While server virtualization is poised to grow even more in 2008, Gray predicts that more companies will begin to explore using desktop (or client) virtualization in their computing environments.

So far, the majority of companies aren’t sold on desktop virtualization, which is a trend Microsoft would like to change with Vista. (See CIO’s recent survey, “Your Virtualized State in 2008”, for more on what enterprises have to say about desktop virtualization.)

“Virtualization on the client has been held back for years due to a number of reasons, including lack of awareness, buyer confusion over the different technologies, vendor consolidation, licensing issues and a lack of standards,” Gray writes. “While all of these shortcomings are getting addressed today, Forrester predicts that Windows Vista will help drive interest because many companies are struggling with hardware and software compatibility issues as part of their migration and they’re rethinking everything with the new OS, including architecture.”

In meetings with a group of reporters at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters in mid-April, several Microsoft executives, including COO Kevin Turner, talked up the company’s move into the desktop virtualization space in 2008. (See “What’s Driving Microsoft’s Strategy” for a look at Turner’s explanation of Microsoft’s roadmap.)

The product roadmaps presented by Shannen Boettcher and Larry Orecklin, both general managers of separate Windows divisions, showed how virtualization would be wrapped around the Vista environment (in the hardware, operating system, applications and data). Boettcher predicts that in the future, management of this environment with virtualization tools will “become the killer application.”

And as Microsoft has done many other times in its history, it will use its scale and product reach with Windows Vista to help spur virtualization technologies on the desktop (and on servers and with applications too). “Why Microsoft feels good and why we win: the TCO,” Orecklin says. “We are about mass adoption. That is our business model. And our economics will allow us to drive much broader adoption in the industry.”

Right now, Forrester’s Gray envisions virtualization as a long-term solution for companies. “While customers might choose virtualization to fix an immediate problem,” he writes in the report, “more and more will begin to see the ongoing management and security benefits that it provides over the long term and will expand their deployments to much wider audiences.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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