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Windows on ARM poses unique challenges, benefits

Windows 8 on ARM processors will give enterprises supporting BYOD a way to manage one operating system across all devices. But putting Windows 8 on ARM also raises concerns.

Windows 8 on ARM will be one more thing that IT departments have to familiarize themselves with in the array of mobile devices that employees use for work.

Microsoft recently announced it would release Windows 8 and future versions of the operating system on ARM processors for mobile devices and tablets, alongside traditional x86 processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. for PCs and laptops.

Experts agree that it could be several years before enterprise customers feel the full effects of Microsoft's decision. It's not too early, however, to begin contemplating what this change could mean for IT, since applications written for x86 processors won't run on ARM processors and vice versa.

"Any time there is a complete turnover of architecture technology, there's a significant risk with reliability and stability," said Eugene Alfaro, director of IT engineering services at Cornerstone Technologies, an IT solutions provider in San Jose, Calif. "IT organizations don't get fired for not answering the phone. They get fired when the computers don't turn on," he added.

The Windows 8 sea change
Microsoft said publicly in December that the Windows 8 beta will be available this month. When it does hit, Windows 8 will significantly change the traditional Windows interface for the first time. Windows 95 isn't that much different from Windows 7, after all.

Windows 8 on ARM will run only the Metro user interface (UI). Windows running on x86 processors will offer the familiar desktop interface, as well as the new touch-based, tiled interface known as Metro.

That means Windows shops won't be forced to switch to the Metro UI on desktops. Companies supporting bring your own desktop (BYOD) programs may want to encourage end users to get comfortable with Windows 8 Metro on their desktops. That would make it easier to enforce the use of Windows ARM tablets over Android or iOS devices.

The benefit for IT could be having more control over BYOD, said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

Silver reasoned IT departments would have an easier time securing and accounting for those devices because it would be similar to securing a Windows desktop or laptop. Unlike Android or the iPad, enterprises already have the policies and tools to secure a Windows tablet, he said.

"The form factor might be different, but the OS is still Windows," Silver said.

Windows 8 on ARM: Pros and cons
ARM processors, based on Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architectures, have many advantages over x86 processors. ARM chips provide fast processing, a long battery life and produce less heat. That makes them ideal for powering everything from smartphones and tablets to printers and digital cameras.

In recent years, ARM processor developers have also added multiple cores to provide the type of processing power typically found in x86 processors.

While ARM chips have their advantages, they aren't capable of running what Microsoft considers "rich" applications -- the kinds of software that work best with a mouse and keyboard -- which is why Windows 8 on ARM will only utilize the touch-based Metro environment.

Because ARM processors and x86 processors aren't eq ual, there is some concern about software-compatibility problems. Microsoft will likely certify the Windows platform on ARM, so there should be no surprises in terms of software compatibility, said Dave Sobel, director of partner community at Level Platforms, a managed services provider based in Ontario.

Others also doubt there will be compatibility problems because so many apps are Web-based. With fewer programs and less sensitive data being stored on local machines, employees should also be able to use a tablet running Windows on ARM to run legacy software through a virtual desktop environment.

"It's less important that Office and other apps run locally and will be less important over time," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a research firm in Kirkland, Wash. It's more important for employees to be productive and get a full day of battery life out of their work device, he added.

That's the benefit of Windows on ARM, Cherry said.

Let us know what you think about this story; email James Furbush or follow @slyoyster on Twitter.

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