Windows 8.1 preview fixes the failings of Windows 8 for the enterprise

The Windows Assessment and Deployment Toolkit included with the Windows 8.1 preview addresses concerns hindering adoption of Microsoft's OS.

Microsoft has dominated enterprise desktops with its Windows operating system for years. Nevertheless, the company has struggled with getting enterprise users to adopt the latest version of Windows as quickly as possible. Many IT departments take a wait-and-see approach before upgrading to whatever Microsoft says is its latest and greatest invention in the hope that others will vet the software for them. The Windows 8.1 preview tries to address this problem.

Other than sales of new systems and consumer-level upgrades, Windows 8 did not make major inroads into the enterprise. The reasons for that are numerous, ranging from budget and time constraints to worries about how a new user interface and focus on mobile computing could affect productivity.

Microsoft seems to have learned from that stalled enterprise adoption challenge and has packaged Windows 8 enhancements in Windows 8.1, formerly called "Windows Blue." The Windows 8.1 preview restores a few features that were originally found in Windows 7 yet disappeared from the initial Windows 8 feature set.

For example, the oft-maligned Start button, which resided on the bottom left-hand corner of the Windows 7 desktop, disappeared from Windows 8. Instead, users found what was once called the "Metro interface," a series of tiles for launching applications. Millions of users worldwide had come to rely on the Windows 7 Start button, whose elimination of it caused much strife and productivity loss.

However, the loss of the Start button was only a minor blip on the radar of enterprise network administrators, whose primary concerns about Windows 8 focused on deployment, management and compatibility.

With these issues in mind, Microsoft has announced or released several tools that should assuage administrator concerns about Windows 8. For example, the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2013 Preview contains several tools and information geared toward helping admins push out Windows 8.1 across the enterprise.

The preview includes the following:

  • Support for the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK) for Windows 8.1 Preview. The Windows ADK for Windows 8.1 Preview is available on the Microsoft Download Center.
  • Support for deployment of Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows Server 2012 R2 Preview, as well as Windows 7 and Windows 8 families of operating systems.
  • Support for zero-touch integration (ZTI) with System Center 2012 R2 Configuration Manager Preview.

All of these Windows 8 enhancements are intended to ease the deployment and integration challenges presented by Windows 8.1.

The ADK for Windows 8.1 Preview provides tools for deploying and assessing Windows systems. The Windows Deployment feature is designed for OEMs and IT professionals who customize and automate the large-scale installation of Windows on a factory floor or across an organization. The Windows ADK supports that capability by incorporating the deployment tools that were previously released as part of the OEM Preinstallation Kit (OPK) and the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK).

ADK creates images for deployment, takes advantage of the Windows Preinstallation environment and offers the Windows System Image Manager. In theory, the ADK will make deploying Windows 8.1 as simple as (if not simpler) than deploying Windows 7 across an enterprise, at least for new installations.

These tools can be used to automate Windows 8 deployments, removing the need for user interaction during Windows setup. Deployment tools include Deployment Imaging Servicing and Management (DISM) command-line tool, DISM PowerShell cmdlets, the DISM application programming interface (API), Windows System Image Manager (Windows SIM) and the OSCDIMG command-line tool.

For administrators looking to migrate to the latest version of Windows, the process becomes a little more complicated because it entails multistep chores that have to be done in a certain order. To smooth the process, the ADK includes a new version of the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT), which inventories apps already in use across the enterprise and then identifies potential application-compatibility problems. That step allows administrators to mitigate compatibility problems before moving ahead with an upgrade.

Note, however, that some native Windows applications may not be identified as potentially incompatible, causing applications such as Windows XP Mode to no longer be available after an upgrade.

The ADK also includes the User State Migration Tool (USMT), which allows data and settings from existing Windows installations to be migrated to a new installation of Windows 8.1. But USMT may not capture everything, and administrators may have to turn to third-party tools to be completely successful. For larger enterprises, the Volume Activation Management Tool (VAMT) can ease activation and licensing chores.

A move to Windows 8.1 doesn't just end with a migration; there are ancillary tasks that should be performed after a successful migration to maintain performance and isolate any issues that may crop up. Microsoft includes a few additional tools in the ADK to handle those issues.

The Windows Performance Toolkit (WPT) includes tools to record system events and analyze performance data in a graphical user interface. WPT includes Windows Performance Recorder, Windows Performance Analyzer and Xperf.

Also included is the Windows Assessment Toolkit, which is used to run assessments on a single computer. Assessments are tasks that simulate user activity and examine the state of the computer. Assessments produce metrics for various aspects of the system and provide recommendations for making improvements.

Building on the Windows Assessment Toolkit is Windows Assessment Services, which is used to remotely manage settings, computers, images and assessments in a lab environment where Windows Assessment Services is installed. This application can run on any computer with access to the server that is running Windows Assessment Services.

Although change can be painful and off-putting, Microsoft has learned a few lessons with Windows 8 and has applied the knowledge gained to the Windows 8.1 preview, which might be easier to deploy in an enterprise. These tools offer a less traumatic paradigm shift for end users, helping to preserve productivity while bringing new capabilities to enterprise desktops.

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