Examining alternatives to Windows 8

Jonathan Hassell, Contributor

Now that Microsoft has recently released Windows 8 to manufacturing and the operating system's general availability is just around the corner, many administrators are finally coming around to the fact that Windows has changed. Some IT shops are considering or have already adopted Microsoft Windows alternatives, especially as mobile devices join desktops for enterprise computing.

Some critics have said that the Windows 8 desktop is a second-class citizen running as an app with subpar touch support. Other changes facing enterprise IT pros include the new Metro-style environment, which is designed more for touch tablets than regular desktop PCs.

Let's take a look at some of the Windows alternatives that you might consider if the new release is simply too much change all at once for your organization.

Mac OS X

Apple continues to make inroads with its desktop OS, helped by the massive popularity of its consumer devices. The Mac experience is actually quite rich now; the Office for Mac 2011 product from Microsoft is a full-featured office suite that has nearly equivalent features to its Windows counterpart.

More about Windows 8 and operating system alternatives

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Do enterprises even need Microsoft Office anymore?

When alternative OSes are part of the desktop picture

Numerous productivity tools are available for the Mac, and most cloud services such as Office 365 are also compatible with Mac clients. In addition, network infrastructure from Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems supports connections like virtual private networks (VPNs) from Mac clients as well.

The main problem with using Macs for business is the lack of onboard management tools, but third-party products from Thursby Software and other manufacturers can make enterprise Mac desktop management less painful. Users love the hardware, which is expensive, and they enjoy syncing their own Apple devices with the Mac platform.

If you're considering an alternative operating system that's a full-featured fat-client platform, look no further than the Mac -- nothing else out there, including desktop Linux, comes close.

A VDI implementation used with tablets and ultrabooks

Lots of people own an iPad and a lot of folks are interested in the ultralight PC notebooks (which Intel calls "ultrabooks") that are making their way onto the market. These devices represent the ultimate in portability and are a surprisingly good value for the money.

Tablets, like the iPad and Android-based devices, can use virtual desktop technology to connect to a back-end pool of virtual machines and use a corporate desktop image in a Remote Desktop Protocol-based session.

Ultrabook users have less of a need for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) because they typically run a full fat operating system, but you can still use it for these clients. Users get portability, and they can run whatever OS they prefer while connecting back to a managed instance of a desktop that IT controls.

Establishing a BYOD plan

This takes the consumerization of IT to its current extreme and may create its own headaches, but it's certainly a possibility. Your users are already clamoring to bring their iPhones and Android phones to work. Why not simply give them a device subsidy and let them choose what to use? Some workers prefer portability. Other users prefer three monitors. Still others would like a specific keyboard configuration on a laptop.

The list of personalization opportunities goes on. VDI and bring your own device (BYOD) policies can yield many benefits. For example, users will be happy with -- or at least responsible for -- their own hardware choices, and enterprise IT can control managed instances.

You still need some type of network security package like network access protection or quarantining to ensure that hosts connected to the corporate network are patched and secure. You'd of course also need a fleet of loaners and repair machines, but BYOD could even allow users to choose from a list of devices to bring, running whatever operating system they'd like. What if you allowed home desktops and laptops running Mac OS X to connect through a VPN or even remotely into a virtual desktop? These are all things to consider as a Windows alternative.

Ignoring Windows 8 and continuing with Windows 7 deployments

Some might call this the ostrich approach, with images of heads in sand, but ask yourself if the value of Windows 8 can be realized by your users over and above what already exists with Windows 7.

Many users have gotten used to Windows 7, and it doesn't require a lot of retraining. The OS was designed for use almost exclusively on the hardware you already have, whereas Windows 8 is pretty much a touch-first experience.

Windows 7 is compatible with just about everything, since it has been on the market for three years now, and it already has a service pack under its belt. It's fast and responsive. Microsoft's Windows 8 is a lot of change. Why bother? You could keep rolling out Windows 7. It has a supportability window for commercial customers until Jan. 14, 2020, so it still has a lot of life left in it.

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What Windows 8 alternatives are you considering?

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