Giving Windows Vista a chance

A vote against upgrading to Microsoft Windows Vista can be dangerous for IT shops that don't bother to check out the latest improvements to the operating system.

Greg Shields, Contributor
Greg Shields
All politics is local. At least that's what they say during the elections. But politics is more than just getting politicians elected back into office. It's a long and involved process of getting people to think like you do and approve of the decisions you make. This same process holds true with what has become IT's third rail: Windows Vista.

For some organizations, Microsoft's newest desktop operating system is a marvel of improvements. It's more secure, and it has improved configuration control as well as vastly enhanced troubleshooting and support features. All of these make Vista a compelling upgrade for many IT professionals.

But as with politics, there's also a dark side. With Vista's initial debut more than a year ago came a bevy of application and driver conflicts, an uncomfortable redesigned user interface and hardware requirements that many found excessive. Because of this triumvirate of initial roadblocks, many Windows administrators took a quick first look at Vista, a glance at their current environment and then quickly walked away. The impression of costly added hardware combined with Vista's initial compatibility problems became Vista's defining theme, nowhere more strongly than in the press.

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Political analysts will tell you that if you don't win over the press, you'll never win the election. And it seems Microsoft is seeing the same sort of image problem in the IT press as well. Riding high on Vista's early problems, many in the IT punditocracy quickly took the much-more-titillating anti-Vista position. With their Vista vitriol making waves, it wasn't long before busy administrators followed suit with the anti-Vista sentiment, many of them without ever even trying it themselves. The problem with this is that such an upgrade-phobic position can be a dangerous precipice for professionals in the IT environment who don't understand the Vista of today.

Loads of changes in Windows Vista

First and foremost, much of the blame is misplaced for Vista's initial driver and application compatibility problems. Vista is Microsoft's first desktop operating system fully developed under the guidelines of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Initiative, a focus that reprioritized security above virtually all else in Microsoft's software development processes. If you've hated the monthly patch cycle or have been hit hard by some security vulnerability in the past, the fruits of this focus over the long haul will help you sleep better at night.

But the real problem is with those conflicts themselves. Until the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft's operating systems were unlike virtually every other modern OS in that they allowed access by drivers and applications directly into "Ring 0," also known as the kernel itself. With this access, any application or driver could easily leverage the full power and resources of the core of Windows itself.

This direct access was a boon for compatibility and is arguably a big source of Microsoft's widespread OS adoption. But it simultaneously is the source of huge operating system vulnerabilities, crashes and instabilities. With Vista, Microsoft made the long-range decision to eliminate direct access and align Vista's security model with those of the other major operating systems. The good news is that there is better security, less chance that an application can crash a machine and a more stable operating system. The bad news? Many applications and virtually every driver ever written needed a rewrite.

So with Vista, Microsoft may have kicked off the problem, but the real devil is in the details. Microsoft made known during Vista's multi-year development lifecycle that changes were coming, but many driver and application vendors ignored the warnings. Thus, when Vista was released, we Windows administrators ultimately saw an operating system that couldn't do what we need it to do.

Over the last year, much of those needed rewrites have been completed. And pretty much all managed desktop hardware now has the necessary drivers for a successful upgrade.

Windows Vista's hardware hardships

With the tidal wave of application and driver conflicts slowly returning to calm seas, we shift our attention to Vista's other major point of contention -- its hardware requirements. Indeed, Vista does require a higher grade of hardware than previous operating systems, though this is no different than virtually every other major OS upgrade released to date.

Where the "Vista is too slow" commentary quickly subsides is in two decisions your environment will need to make during your upgrade considerations.

First, Vista by design makes use of more memory than Windows XP. Yes, this is partially due to Vista's high graphical requirements, but its high-performance Aero features can be disabled either directly or globally through Group Policy. Dialing down Vista's high-end graphical processing will speed up its performance by a noticeable level.

Vista also tends to behave better when operating with plenty of RAM. In today's desktop computing environments, RAM is a cheap upgrade with a sizeable cost-to-benefit equation. Four gigabytes of high-quality RAM for desktops or laptops can be found for around $100. For desktops and laptops purchased within the last three years, upgrading RAM to 4 GB alone tends to melt away most performance issues.

The other major determination IT environments should make is in the version of Vista to deploy. For hardware that can support the x64 version of Vista, there is little reason not to deploy it. For virtually all managed desktop hardware, the needed 64-bit drivers are now available. Vista x64 simply runs faster than Vista x86 on the same hardware. And in what amounts to a graduation to the 16-bit Windows-on-Windows subsystem of old, Vista x64 fully supports your 32-bit applications through 32-bit emulation.

These two facets, along with the substantive addition of Vista-only Group Policies and other management and security capabilities, align to make Vista the winning candidate for IT. So ignore the pundits and give Vista a chance. You may find in the end that the politics surrounding this desktop upgrade are louder and more divisive than the upgrade itself.

Greg Shields, MCSE, is an independent author and consultant based in Denver with many years of IT architecture and enterprise administration experience. He is an IT trainer and speaker on such IT topics as Microsoft administration, systems management and monitoring, and virtualization. His recent book Windows Server 2008: What's New/What's Changed is available at www.sapienpress.com.

This was first published in April 2008

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