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Many IT shops that stuck with Windows XP may now be making a detour around Windows 7 to upgrade to Windows 8 -- specifically Windows 8.1. Since Microsoft has ended official Windows XP support, some organizations must now make their moves. Let's examine some best practices, migration tools, pitfalls to look out for and operating system alternatives.
The Windows 8.1 UI is still a sticking point
The user interface in Windows 8.1 is jarring more in its differences from Windows 7 than its actual -- or perceived lack of -- functionality. The OS looks different but still works largely the same. Most users will notice two key differences, however: the lack of a Start menu and the inability to find files by just hitting the Windows key.
The Windows 8 Start screen is much more "in your face," and users might have a hard time finding their regular programs. Pinning these to the taskbar by default in your deployment will save some time. On average, it takes users about three or four weeks to become comfortable with the new Start screen.
Searching for files and folders just by hitting the Windows key was something that Windows 7 users were used to doing. They gained access to indexed search results for any term just by hitting the Start button and typing in keywords. This works in Windows 8, but it's clunkier than the old Start menu -- you must hit the Start screen, switch to search for files and type your keyword just to see a small number of search results.
Think about deploying a package such as Start8, which brings a Windows 7-style Start screen to Windows 8.1. Or you could wait for users to get themselves accustomed to the new environment.
Administrators will want to note that Microsoft has modified update procedures on Windows 8.1, so patch management behavior on end-user systems is more difficult to predict. Systems will restart to finish installing updates and, in some cases, this cannot be prevented.
By contrast, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 allowed desktop admins to disable the automatic restarting behavior. You may wish to investigate how this will affect your users and your patch management strategy.
Remember apps, patches in migration to Windows 8.1
As with any big switch between operating systems, there are a number of issues to consider. They include application compatibility, the actual need for updates and more that admins might overlook.
Are your applications compatible? Is your hardware compatible? If it runs on Windows 7, it will probably run on Windows 8.1, so that is a decent litmus test. Your edge cases will be industrial hardware and vertical apps, as well as any mission-critical software that's still in play but was written by a developer who has either gone out of business or no longer supports the package you are using. Most typical Windows applications work fine, so spend your time on the nonstandard packages.
You should go straight to Windows 8.1. With Windows 8.1, you'll benefit from several fixes and usability improvements; plus, there's no additional cost to the upgrade. There's simply no reason to go to Windows 8 rather than 8.1.
Note that you need to be on the latest update. Microsoft has an odd patching cycle for these free dot-style releases and updates to the original Windows 8, such that in order to receive support, critical fixes and security updates, you must install the Windows 8.1 update patch.
In addition, be aware that you may not need a hardware refresh. Surprisingly, if your hardware runs Windows 7 acceptably well, then Windows 8.1 will run just fine on the same box. Machines purchased during the Windows Vista era that may be running Windows XP now are also candidates for upgrading to Windows 8.1.
Essentially, all but the barest-bone, lowest-powered machines from 2007 and later are perfectly capable of running most business applications on Windows 8.1.
Alternatives to a Windows 8.1 migration
Maybe moving to Windows 8.1 is not right for your organization. You have a couple of options:
Sticking with Windows XP. Like it or not, some applications you use and support simply may not be compatible with Windows 8. Certain industrial hardware, specialized vertical software or any other software that works with particular hardware may not have drivers for later operating systems. In these cases, at least some of your boxes will need to stay on Windows XP.
In this case, you might want to investigate the hacky sorts of patches involved with tricking Windows XP into thinking it is the Embedded edition of the OS. Of course, you should test carefully before you do anything irreversible. Or you could disconnect Windows XP machines from the Internet, which is partial protection from crackers taking advantage of security vulnerabilities.
Deploying Windows 7 instead of Windows 8. You would be in good company, as many IT professionals call Windows 7 "the new Windows XP," in that Windows 7 is plenty good enough and will be supported for long enough that there is no compelling reason to consider Windows 8 now.
You could even argue that Microsoft is rushing to release Windows 10 because it sees that Windows 8 is not being widely adopted. At any rate, if you have a volume-license agreement with Software Assurance, you can freely deploy Windows 7, as you have downgrade rights.
Moving to a non-Windows operating system. Macs are gaining in popularity, and Microsoft Office on the Mac is well supported. While desktop Linux is still a pipe dream for most, admins can consider Mac OS for shops that need to move off XP and that require new hardware.
Organizations that are late to the Windows migration party will find that Windows 8.1 is mostly superior to Windows 8. The touch-centric user interface may alienate those familiar with Windows 7 and previous OS versions, however, and there are alternatives, including Mac OS.
Still, IT shops considering their options after Windows XP could do worse than upgrade to Windows 8.1, even as the hype begins around the inevitable arrival of Windows 10. Admins will benefit by remembering security and being aware of third-party utilities for Windows 8.1.
Windows XP shops should know about the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant
Windows 8.1's UI is an improvement from Windows 8 features
Learn to survive in a world changed by the demise of Windows XP and the rise of Windows 8.1
Tools in Windows 8 can extend IT capabilities
What you should include in a Windows 8 migration toolbox
Handling legacy apps in a Windows 8 migration
Five things to remember as Windows XP support ends