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What to expect from Windows 8 if you're an IT manager

The release of Windows 8 is still a year or so away, but our expert explains what IT pros can expect from the new OS, including an app store and new virtualization features.

When the first public preview of Windows 8 was released, most of the media reaction focused on end-user features such as the new touch-enhanced user interface. But there are just as many changes under the hood of Windows 8 that desktop managers should pay attention to for potential deployment and management.

Because the operating system's release is still some time away, the specific changes are still something of a moving target. Microsoft has released enough information about Windows 8, however, to give us an idea of what challenges and opportunities the new OS presents to IT administrators.

The interface
Few features in Windows 8 have been given as much attention -- or as much argument -- as the new Metro interface. Derived from the touch-centric interface for Windows Phone 7, it replaces the Windows 7/Vista Start menu with a horizontally scrollable set of tiles representing various applications.

Windows 8 is obviously being positioned very aggressively as a touch-oriented OS, but that brings up several questions. What about those of us who aren't using touch-based systems? There are still far more conventional notebooks and desktop systems in the average enterprise than there are computers that use touch input (barring phones). Does this mean that Microsoft is insisting that nontouch systems be replaced?

It's a legitimate concern for a number of reasons. The Metro interface isn't as efficient with a mouse and keyboard as it is with touch input. Also, the common test platform (CTP) of Windows 8 has no obvious way to disable the Metro menus and uses only the legacy Windows Start menu. Some IT pros might interpret this as a message that Windows 8 is for touch-enabled devices to the near-exclusion of other things.

But keep in mind that the CTP isn't intended to provide a sense of how the finished product will behave. It's aimed mainly at developers and programmers, to kick-start the creation of apps specifically for Windows 8 and Metro. Also, there are hints that the new OS will be able to revert to its older appearance. There is a Registry hack that turns off the Metro tiles, and a few standalone programs will toggle Metro on and off for you.

The best solution, of course, would be a setup option (via the installation interface or the unattended setup script) that disables Metro by default for machines that don't need it. Even if that doesn't appear, IT managers should be able to make that change manually without doing excessive heavy lifting.

The applications
By now, word has circulated widely about Microsoft's app store -- a common place within Windows 8 where applications can be obtained and installed. But outside of that, the way apps are deployed in Windows 8 is going to be of interest to IT managers, thanks to a new app packaging and installation system called AppX. It enhances many installation options and adds some that are specific to Windows 8, such as "charms," or extensions for the bottom-left system-hover menu.

Right now, the details about AppX are sketchy, but they're bound to be documented in far greater detail as Windows 8 moves closer to its gold release. If your organization pushes custom-written applications to its workstations or modifies app packages that are being pushed, it'll be in your best interest to learn about AppX as further details are made available.

Internet Explorer
The endless ongoing march for Internet Explorer continues in Windows 8, which is set to ship with IE 10 preinstalled. But many organizations are more concerned about running applications that depend on older versions, around which they've built an astonishing amount of enterprise infrastructure.

Microsoft's answer to providing backwards compatibility with earlier versions of Internet Explorer has been to provide a set of regularly refreshed virtual machines that include earlier versions of IE. The company's rationale is that IE is part of the OS and can't be decoupled as a standalone app. True as this may be, it's still irritating. But don't ignore it; take stock of any systems or applications that depend on earlier versions of IE, and set up some way to access them.

The boot process
Windows 8 takes much less time to boot up because of a partial hibernation image that contains the hardware drivers, so they don't need to be reinitialized. Another portion of Windows 8's boot process that has received a lot of scrutiny is its support for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and secured booting. This was designed to prevent malware from tampering with the boot process.

Some people have expressed concern that it will be more difficult to install another operating system on a machine equipped with UEFI. Microsoft said it won't prohibit manual changes to the secure booting process or manual disabling of UEFI, but a computer manufacturer may still not allow such changes. Windows 8's logo program requires machines that come with Windows 8 preloaded to ship with secure boot turned on.

To that end, an IT manager should pay attention to the hardware and OEM side of things, especially if an organization needs non-Microsoft OSes with UEFI-based hardware. It seems unlikely that a mainstream hardware maker could disable such things without drawing the ire of users and IT folks alike. I suspect a niche-oriented OEM could do it and not suffer the same degree of backlash, so I wouldn't discount the possibility entirely.

Microsoft has built a slew of new virtualization features into Windows 8, directly integrating its Hyper-V client hypervisor with the OS. Any other OS that can run under Hyper-V can be booted and run directly in a window, such as the preconfigured virtual machines that allow earlier versions of Internet Explorer to be used. (Microsoft also addressed the complaint that systems were unable to sleep or hibernate while running Hyper-V.)

Many people have asked if this will negate the need for a third-party desktop virtualization product such as VMware Player or VirtualBox. The short answer is "maybe"; it will depend entirely on what features of those systems they depend on and whether they're eclipsed by Windows 8's Hyper-V implementation.

For instance, although multimonitor support is included with VirtualBox, it doesn't seem to be available yet in Hyper-V. But for most casual use -- one-off testing of applications in an OS sandbox or using Microsoft’s prepared VM appliances for IE -- Hyper-V promises more than enough power.

Deployment and management
Several new deployment and management features in Windows 8 are worth taking note of before you attempt a rollout. The Refresh and Reset features, for example, act like System Restore but with some enhancements. Refresh allows a system to be returned to a specific point, but it preserves user settings and apps purchased through the Windows app store.

Reset is essentially an accelerated reinstallation, and it purges everything. It's not yet clear if IT managers will be able to roll out systems with their own custom Refresh and Reset behaviors, such as allowing the system to be refreshed to a state set in-house. In theory, it should be possible by customizing the system image.

Another major deployment feature is something people have been trying to do with Windows ad hoc -- run the OS from a removable drive. Windows 8's Windows to Go feature allows exactly that. One can run a completely functional, self-contained Windows 8 installation from a USB drive. IT shops will want to pay close attention to this feature for situations such as the temporary provisioning of a system for a contractor. Windows to Go may also allow users to work from home, where the OS needs to be configured in a specific way.

By the way, if you're wondering if Windows 8 can be deployed through Systems Center Configuration Manager 2012, the short answer appears to be "yes." IT expert James Bannan gave it a whirl and said he was pleased to find that the Windows 8 CTP was easily deployed to a test workstation. If you're planning on using Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012, that's also supported.

Time for speculation and attention
Because so much of what Windows 8 promises is still at least a year away, it's tough to say exactly how these new features will change the way IT admins work. So much of it depends on implementation, and between now and then, there's plenty of time for Microsoft to tweak how these features are presented to end users and IT managers. The time to start paying attention is now, and it's also time to set aside the facilities to test Windows 8 against your own needs and constraints.

Serdar Yegulalp
has been writing about personal computing and IT for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including (among others) Windows Magazine, InformationWeek and the TechTarget family of sites.

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