Windows 8.1 security, management enhancements entice enterprise IT

Diana Hwang

NEW ORLEANS -- New Windows 8.1 features are intended to appeal to enterprise IT shops that didn't pay much attention to the vastly different operating system when it first became available last year.

Microsoft missed the boat in delivering a strong enterprise message for Windows 8. The consumer hype and harsh criticism of the user interface cost the company the interest of its bread-and-butter IT community.

Several attendees at this week's TechEd conference here expressed disappointment at the lack of an enterprise focus when Windows 8 launched last fall. But Microsoft has finally delivered some Windows 8.1 features that are more relevant to big businesses, and some companies have begun to find reasons to roll out Windows 8 in the near future.

One IT administrator who requested anonymity said his corporation will deploy Windows 8 tablets to retail store managers across the U.S. by the end of this year because of the potential competitive advantage.

Windows 8.1 more secure than Windows 7

Windows 8.1 security features are integrated, and Microsoft said during the conference that Windows 8 is six times more secure than Windows 7.

New security and user management components could be the most attractive of the Windows 8.1 features. In fact, understanding Windows security was a key theme of several sessions at TechEd. The new features include biometric support and multifactor authentication with virtual smart cards, as well as data encryption across all Windows devices. Microsoft also added other components to protect end users from malware and other attacks using Windows Defender.

The silver bullet is security, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. Multifactor authentication makes for a much stronger security message, he said.

As one of the first steps for preventing certificate attacks in Windows 8.1, the software will be able to collect certificate data and analyze it in the cloud. Microsoft will work with certificate authorities to perform remediation if the digital identity of Web sites has been compromised.

Microsoft will also provide a free anti-malware solution to detect malware that cannot be found on local machines already using existing anti-malware products, said Chris Hallum, senior product manager for Windows Client Security.

Windows 8.1 will offer data encryption across all versions of Windows, including Windows Phone, tablets and PCs. This capability was not available in Windows 7 or initially in Windows 8.

Customers wanted Microsoft to add data encryption to Windows 7 and 8, Hallum explained. However, trusted platform module (TPM) chips were not available except in high-end PCs, he said. Now with bring your own device (BYOD) programs and TPM being more pervasive, the capability can be offered more broadly as firmware, he added.

Microsoft won't support Direct Memory Access on mobile devices, however, which could represent another point for security leaks.

Windows 8.1 enhancements for IT

Microsoft's OS enhancements include a number of Windows 8.1 features, such as the ability to easily create a corporate image on all Windows 8 devices.

Imaging line-of-business applications on a Windows 8.0 device was painful, said one IT administrator in the retail industry. He was pleased that Microsoft fixed the issue in Windows 8.1 because providing a single corporate image across the tablets will be much easier, he said.

In addition, support for the Open Mobile Alliance's Device Management standard is now built into Windows 8.1, enabling enterprise IT to use third-party mobile device management software.

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Windows 8.1 also includes Workplace Join and selective wipe, which allows administrators to separate corporate and personal files and more easily manage devices in BYOD scenarios. If IT has to wipe corporate data from a device, the feature leaves the personal data, said Brad Anderson, corporate vice president for Windows Server and System Center program management at Microsoft.

Today, this feature works only for Windows-based devices. Anderson could not provide a timeline for support of Apple iOS and Google Android-based devices. Workplace Join lets end users join personal devices to enterprise networks by registering them via Active Directory.

Other Windows 8.1 features aimed at the enterprise include support for near field communication (NFC), tap-to-pair printing, Wi-Fi direct printing, native Miracast wireless display, broadband tethering and auto-triggered virtual private network support.

Microsoft will release Windows 8.1 to developers on June 26, timed with its Build conference in San Francisco.

Windows 8 adoption hurdles persist

Microsoft still has a long haul ahead of it. Many organizations are content with Windows 7 and still can't accept the new Windows 8 user interface (UI).

Jason Crough, an IT engineer at Gaska Tape Inc. in Elkhart, Ind., has used the new OS. Though he doesn't have a problem with the new UI, he anticipates problems with old-school users familiar with Microsoft's classic desktop interface.

Others like what they see with Windows 8.1 but simply aren't ready to upgrade.

"We have enough holes to fill," said Alan Pratt, an engineer at Western Refining in El Paso, Texas, who supports his company's Windows products. Other technology issues take precedence over migrating his environment to an updated operating system, he said.

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