Windows 7 migrations win out for XP shops

Diana Hwang

For some organizations, the official end of support for Windows XP raises the question: Should they migrate to a newer operating system such as Windows 7 or Windows 8, or is remaining on XP worth the risk?

The answer depends on many variables, including enterprise needs and budget constraints. But before businesses dismiss the idea of migrating to a new OS in favor of remaining on Windows XP without support, they'll want to understand the potential consequences of such a decision.

Windows XP stays stable but grows insecure

There's no denying that Windows XP is one of Microsoft's most stable OSes. In fact, 26% of desktops worldwide still run Windows XP, according to market research firm NetMarketShare.

Despite Windows XP's positive reputation, companies need to upgrade their desktops and laptops to comply with security and privacy rules. This is especially true in healthcare, finance and other heavily regulated industries.

Those remaining on Windows XP should remember that its end-of-life makes the OS open to security exploits. In a recent statement, Microsoft said it would extend anti-malware support for Windows XP until 2015, but that won't do much to safeguard an XP machine.

Organizations can pay for custom support, but it won't be cheap. According to a whitepaper released by IDC, overall support costs for a Windows XP machine could average up to $870 per year, per device compared with a similar Windows 7 installation, which may cost up to $168 per PC annually.

Jumping to the latest version of Windows can be a daunting challenge, but Windows 7 represents the path of least resistance. Windows 7 is safe, stable and fully supported by Microsoft and third parties.

In addition, Windows 7 is widely used, with 47% of desktops running the OS, compared with 10% for Windows 8 and 8.1, according to NetMarketShare.

Meanwhile, Windows 8 still has kinks and hasn't been widely embraced by business users. Many IT observers have blamed its so-called Modern interface and overreliance on touch-based tablets.

A well-worn migration path to Windows 7

For many organizations, migrating to Windows 7 represents a safe bet, and with the right planning, it can even be a relatively smooth process.

For example, Atlanta-based company Manheim, which provides vehicle remarketing services, finished its Windows 7 migration for 12,000 devices in 2013.

"The biggest challenge that came up quickly was [deciding] how to reinstall the users' applications," said Denise Haeseler, a Windows 7 deployment project manager at Manheim. "Our prior process was very manual. We wanted to move quickly and not have a great expense."

The company used Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), but encountered problems with reinstalling applications. "It wasn't efficient for a turnaround time," said Brian Scott, technology engineering manager.

Manheim ran several pilot programs,  then turned to a third party for help. The company ultimately used 1E's AppClarity to improve visibility into the apps running across servers and desktops. "The process we developed with Windows 7 with automatic application discovery suited us perfectly," said Brian Tucker, senior Windows engineer. "[It] allowed us to standardize our licensing and versions."

In another example, Alabama Gas Corp. had a three-year migration plan. The Birmingham-based company used SCCM 2012 to migrate operations to Windows 7 and Office 2010.

"Our migration to Windows 7 was one of the smoothest transitions we have ever made," said David Driggers, supervisor of desktop systems at Alabama Gas Corp. "The biggest reason for the success was the test runs we made [for] imaging the machines and capturing data. We used the knowledge gained from it to create a written process that we did not deviate from."

Gaining the support and trust of employees also helped smooth the migration process. "We have a good relationship with our user community," Driggers said. The IT staff spent time with users as their machines were migrated, and workers were briefed well in advance about the changes. 

Windows 7: The new reliable?

Mainstream support for Windows 7 is scheduled to end on Jan. 13, 2015, while extended support continues into 2020. As a result, Windows 7 is a stable OS workhorse with strong support from third parties, and relatively few organizations are concerned about software compatibility.

Software compatibility can be a potential obstacle in a migration from Windows XP to Windows 8, however. IT shops moving to Windows 8 will need to account for a user interface that many consider to be too radical a departure from earlier Windows versions. In addition, organizations seeking to take full advantage of Windows 8 will incur additional expenses in upgrading to touchscreen devices.

Checklist for migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7

A Windows XP migration won't occur without careful planning. Here's a checklist of things to remember before migrating to Windows 7:

  • Understand the organization's hardware and software ecosystem, including any bring-your-own-device participants with access to corporate data and applications.
  • Invest in Microsoft and third-party tools to get a clear picture of the existing products in your environment and which of them are currently being used.
  • Investigate technology such as tablets, mobile devices and cloud computing to see how they may affect the business IT environment and the ways users work.
  • Communicate with end users on when and how the migration will happen to avoid lengthy downtime.
  • Train users on Windows 7 and any related changes.

When it comes to Windows 7 migration, IT pros must address several key challenges, including how to access legacy applications and data not compatible in Windows 7 and older versions of Internet Explorer.

Migration tools can mitigate some of the difficulties of moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8. Some address application remediation and deployment, while others enable access to legacy applications and data from a new OS. These include Microsoft SCCM and offerings from 1E, Adaptiva, Browsium, Dell KACE and SplashTop.

Of course, once IT administrators have completed any Windows XP migration, they won't have long before they have to consider the potential features of Windows 9.

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