Does Windows 7 fit in your enterprise?

Before migrating to Windows 7, enterprises must first weigh the costs against the benefits. See if your organization makes the cut.

This is the first in a four-part series on key elements of a Windows 7 migration. Part 1 discusses the pros and cons of enterprise desktop migrations and whether Windows 7 is compatible with an organization. Future sections will cover key migration elements including the effect of legacy applications, Windows 7 migration tools and licensing.

With a Windows 7 upgrade, one of the most important questions IT managers should ask themselves is "Why?" Microsoft's answer is simple enough: Windows 7 offers so many new features, improved security and enhanced ease of use that you would be crazy not to upgrade.

In the real world, IT managers know they must have concrete reasons to change operating systems -- reasons that are defensible and ultimately offer a solid return on investment. Vetting those reasons comes down to weighing the pros against the cons, and that process can derail upgrade plans simply because the cons may outweigh the pros.

Measuring upgrade viability comes down to identifying the pain points of the upgrade process, determining the costs and, most important, determining the benefits that Windows 7 can bring to a business.

In other words, IT managers should consider where Windows 7 will work and where it won't. The answer they come up with may very well dictate if an upgrade is feasible or, at the very least, worthwhile.

When Windows 7 is a no-go

There are some situations and certain enterprises where Windows 7 will not work. The most obvious reason is because of hardware limitations, which proves to be an excellent starting point for determining viability. Although hardware is an obvious prerequisite, a lot of managers often overlook it or minimize its importance.

Before developing an upgrade plan, make sure you have the hardware to support the upgrade, or at least brace yourself -- and your higher-ups -- for the possibility that replacing hardware might be necessary for an upgrade.

What to look for in an IT asset management package

When you're looking at a package to help you migrate to Windows 7, be sure it includes these key points:

- Full endpoint inventory (software and hardware)
- Patch management
- Application deployment
- Security controls
- Reporting
- Ability to interface with help desk applications
- Remote control
- Backup/Imaging
- Operating system migration features
- Licensing Management
- Management dashboard

The key to determining hardware viability comes from proper PC asset inventories. Many enterprises have IT asset management applications that perform complete hardware and software inventories, making it much easier to determine if an expensive hardware refresh is required. If you don't have an asset management system, it may be a good idea to invest in one -- the time savings and optional features will help ease a migration to Windows 7.

Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor is a free upgrade-assessment tool that you can use to determine your hardware needs for Windows 7. Although the tool is a good starting point, Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor may not take into consideration the demands placed on PCs by line-of-business applications or other specialized circumstances. In other words, you must not only determine if your hardware will run Windows 7, but also if it will run your applications effectively. Some applications, such as CAD or CAM software, may require higher-performance hardware when running under Windows 7.

Desktop hardware is the starting point for validating viability -- the same type of verification process needs to be applied to network infrastructure, network storage and so on. Some of the new features in Windows 7 can increase network traffic or the demand for storage, and those increases must be calculated as well.

Another element to check is support products. Perhaps the corporate help desk runs a remote-control package; if so, you must make sure that it will work with a new desktop OS because help desk support is especially important during an upgrade. Other issues to be wary of include software agents for antivirus protection, asset management, database access and so on. You must validate all of these factors and remediate them if necessary before attempting a rollout of Windows 7.

IT managers should also determine the amount of downtime an upgrade will entail as well as the number of staffers needed to perform an upgrade. Other concerns include application compatibility, end-user training and security -- as well as putting Windows policies and other automated desktop controls in place.

In some cases, determining the viability of an upgrade comes down to actual usage of the current IT infrastructure. A good example of that is an enterprise using either Microsoft's Terminal Services or Citrix XenApp (formerly MetaFrame) to deliver customized applications down to desktop PCs. In those situations, Windows 7 has no real advantage simply because the end-user experience will not change or improve, and the applications in use will not gain any extra functionality. That situation and others like it exemplify this sage advice: If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

When Windows 7 is a go

While the list of cons may seem overwhelming, there are situations when the pros still outweigh them, as well as deployments that exemplify the benefits of Windows 7. Of course, there are situations where the upgrade is mandated. For example, take a move to a 64-bit line-of-business application. The upgrade of that application may force a migration to Windows 7 because the move from a 32-bit application requires an OS change, and the move from a 32-bit to a 64-bit OS may require an application upgrade.

Another example would be a hardware refresh. When PCs are being replaced because of their age, it makes little sense to stick with an old OS that is not designed for the new hardware, and the transition to Windows 7 makes the most sense.

Other situations that make an upgrade to Windows 7 a no-brainer include the adoption of new applications, such as the latest office suite, customer relationship management package or networking upgrades. What's more, a Windows 7 rollout may be prompted by the need to reduce management costs. Many IT departments find it less expensive to support, maintain and manage a single Windows 7 OS throughout the enterprise because the support staff only has to be familiar with one system. Licensing, too, becomes simpler to manage when you switch to a site license, where you have to manage only a single license for all desktop OSes.

Determining whether a Windows 7 upgrade will work requires a focus on analysis and research. In many cases, the conclusions of the analyses determine whether or not an upgrade will be funded, much less merited. Just remember that an upgrade to Windows 7 follows many of the same rules as any other upgrade -- you have to weigh the benefits against the costs to justify the project.

About the author
Frank Ohlhorst is an IT journalist who has also served as a network administrator and applications programmer before forming his own computer consulting firm.

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