Windows 7's cardinal virtues

The latest incarnation of Microsoft's flagship operating system has much to commend it to enterprise users, reports E&T.

The response to Windows Vista from enterprise IT professionals was far less enthusiastic than Microsoft would have liked. When Vista was launched two years ago, like with all new operating systems, businesses waited until the dust settled and Microsoft released its first service pack (SP1).

With Vista, however, SP1 was not enough to stem the adverse publicity that Vista had received from consumers who had bought machines with the new operating system pre-installed, as well as from IT professionals who had evaluated it for their purposes.

Vista's problems began with the significant hike in processing power that the new operating system would require to operate all its premium features. Additionally, Vista's launch coincided with the advent of a tighter two-tiered driver and software certification program in 2006. This was seen as an extra burden for ISVs (independent software vendors) to implement at the same time as ensuring that their software was Vista compatible.

Hence the cost for many organisations to ensure that their hardware and software was up-to-scratch would have made it difficult to justify upgrading from Windows XP, which is seen in some quarters as being more stable than Vista.

Windows changes

Microsoft released Windows 7 release candidate 1 (RC1) for public beta testing on 5 May. As the name implies, this is more-or-less the version that Microsoft hopes to release to the general public and businesses commercially later in 2009.

E&T looked at the previous public beta, build 7000, in February. We are in the process of evaluating and testing the current build 7100. A video report will appear at www.theiet.org/it from 1 June.

Specific to this particular build is the inclusion of a Windows XP emulation mode which will allow users to run legacy programs that cannot natively run on Windows 7. The XP Mode (XPM) will be available to users of the Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise versions - the first two being the highest-priced versions of Windows 7, with Enterprise being sold only through volume licensing agreements.

Microsoft needed to offer the add-on to help persuade users to upgrade to Windows 7. The decision to use virtualisation to provide backward compatibility is a safety net for users who lack access to Microsoft's Enterprise Desktop Virtualisation tech--nology. However, John Curran, head of Microsoft Client Group Europe, believes that the XPM feature would be particularly useful for smaller organisations.

"Small businesses are likely to have more legacy systems," he explains, "and therefore XPM will be particularly important to them as they would still like to access their existing [software] investments."

Administrator tools

Another new feature in Windows 7 is Direct Access, which will allow users to access a company's corporate network without needing to install a third party virtual private network (VPN). However, initially it will work only with Windows Server 2008 R2.

In addition to network file shares, Intranet websites and line-of-business applications will be accessible whenever a user has access to the Internet. This will appeal to IT administrators who will need to update group policies and distribute software across all users, without requiring that they are signed-in using a VPN, or are located on one of the organisation's properties.

What's more, it supports multifactor authentication methods such as smart card and biometrics. It uses IPv6 over IPsec to secure the communication layer.

"We see this as being very useful for IT and security professionals to enable them to manage workstations and computers that are increasingly being used off-campus," says Microsoft's Curran.

Windows 7 Enterprise has some interesting security features built in. For example, Bit locker security protection which was previously only available to encrypt Windows volume drives has now been extended to USB drives. As most IT professionals will profess, prohibiting the use of USB drives is impractical in an enterprise environment; therefore, with the ability of adding an extra layer of security to USB drives will allay many security concerns associated with the use of these storage devices - which have a nasty habit of getting lost.

Industry reaction

The response from the industry pundits, on-the-whole, is positive in relation to Windows 7. Benjamin Gray, senior analyst at market-watcher Forrester, wrote an advisory note to clients to start preparing for Windows 7 deployment now.

"The vast majority of applications that are compatible with Windows Vista will remain compatible with Windows 7," he says. "It is important to note that there will be some low-level application exceptions, such as client security, imaging, firewall, and networking; but the beta of Windows 7 shows significant promise, and most IT operations professionals are looking forward to its availability and eventual enterprise deployment."

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