The business case for Microsoft Windows Vista

There are many factors for IT managers to consider before making the migration to Windows Vista. In part one of this series, expert Bernie Klinder discusses some of the operating system's major improvements.

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Bernie Klinder
Windows Vista is the most anticipated operating system release in Microsoft's history, and it's the most important release for Microsoft since Windows 95. Originally slated for release in late 2003, Vista's development has been stalled, nearly scrapped, restarted, delayed numerous times and endured very public criticism over dropped features.

As Vista finally nears its official release, many people still wonder if Vista is more than just a flashy update to Windows XP. In order for businesses to invest the time and effort to migrate to Vista, the improvements in functionality, productivity, security and manageability have to outweigh the deployment costs.

This article will examine the business case for migrating to Microsoft Windows Vista, focusing on the feature sets within Windows Vista Business and Enterprise Editions. Two more articles will follow later focusing on the drawbacks to migrating to Vista and the factors IT managers need to consider before making the final decision.

Productivity improvements

Microsoft has promised productivity improvements in every operating system it has released, but, for many businesses, those benefits have been difficult for many customers to quantify. In Vista, the improvements are more obvious.

Migrating to Vista

Part 1: The business case for Microsoft Windows Vista

Part 2: The business case against migrating to Vista

Part 3: Vista migration: What IT managers need to consider
The upgrade that most users will notice first is the integrated Windows Desktop Search, which dramatically reduces the time required to find specific documents anywhere on the workstation, predefined network drives, or in applications. Independent productivity studies have estimated that the average business user creates 3 GB of data per year, and spends six to nine hours per week looking for data. While some search functionality is available in third-party tools and Microsoft Desktop Search, the tight OS integration extends the functionality and includes the Start Menu, Control Panel Document Folders, Outlook, OneNote and other areas. Vista's search functions can also query metadata tags to find the right information. You can save common search queries in virtual folders and stack queries so searches can "drill down" to find specific data. Vista also offers a scalable thumbnail preview of the documents so they can be viewed instantly without being opened.

Improved self-healing and help functions

Vista's improved support features allow the operating system to resolve common support problems on its own, potentially reducing downtime and help desk calls. In addition, Microsoft redesigned Vistas sub-menus and configuration functions, which now have friendlier descriptions and combine common tasks and functions into one place. Vista is smarter, more intuitive and more helpful than previous versions of Windows. While these features may annoy tech-savvy power users, it will be a benefit to the vast majority of corporate users who are still struggling to perform basic tasks.

Improved support for mobile users

Mobile users not only benefit from the better help functions, but also from the improved Network Center and Network Setup Wizard. They make connecting to multiple networks and wireless peripherals, or creating secure ad hoc wireless networks easier. The new Mobility Center and Sync Center integrate common tasks, such as managing and synchronizing PDAs and SmartPhones, configuring presentation settings and adjusting battery settings. Simplified data synchronization tools ensure that users can easily update the data on a laptop to a central point for backup or redundancy.

Improved application compatibility features

Application compatibility concerns are frequently the number one reason companies cite for delaying the adoption of a new operating system. Despite Microsoft's straightforward 10-year-old guidelines for creating Windows applications, there is still a vast mountain of poorly written software that finds its way into corporate networks. Since the independent software vendors (ISVs) won't change and companies have not effectively pushed back on these vendors, Microsoft is taking a different approach. It's changing the way Windows Vista handles applications. If a legacy or poorly written application wants to write to protected folders or registry keys, Vista will seamlessly redirect the application to virtualized directories created for that session. In addition, User Access Control reduces the need for users to run as local administrators by elevating only the privileges required to run the application.

To help companies and ISVs test application compatibility, Microsoft improved its Application Compatibility Toolkit, created The XP to Vista Application Developer Cookbook, released a Standard User Analyzer and created an online application compatibility portal where ISVs and customers can post their testing results and rate an application's compatibility.

In addition, Microsoft has given developers the ability to prepackage and digitally sign an automated compatibility installer in Visual Studio 2005 that effectively "patches" their existing applications to work in Vista. For really stubborn applications, Enterprise Vista Edition comes with four Virtual PC licenses, so legacy applications can run in previous versions of Windows when needed.

Improved security

Next to compatibility, security is the second highest concern for business users, and Vista is the first OS that Microsoft built assuming it would be attacked. As a result, Vista's threat profile has been significantly reduced; services have been hardened and segmented, and services run with reduced privileges. The Vista Firewall now protects both inbound and outbound traffic and is application-aware in order to improve compatibility.

Microsoft has added hundreds of Group Policy Objects that improve the ability to control the use of external USB drives and storage devices and even allow or restrict installations based on specific device classes or IDs. Internet Explorer 7 now runs in protected mode, which allows users to browse with no rights, even if they are administrators, plus, cached browser files can be removed with a single click.

For Vista Enterprise and Ultimate editions, BitLocker provides hardware-based drive encryption security for the thousands of corporate laptops that are lost or stolen each year. Combined with Encrypting File System (EFS) and the Rights Management Service, laptops no longer have to be the huge data security threat they are today.

Improved language support

For Enterprise SA customers who manage desktops globally, the biggest reason to migrate to Microsoft Vista is because it is language neutral. The days of managing OS images in 15 different languages are over. Now you can use a single deployment image globally with support for multiple languages built in.

Improved manageability

In addition to the hundreds of new Group Policy Objects mentioned earlier, Microsoft has made improvements in Vista that make it easier to manage and deploy. It simplifies image management with new file-based imaging standards that make updating OS images easier. Vista will only require one OS image per HAL, which reduces time and effort spent creating and managing OS images. Support for the TabletPC platform is already built into Vista and no longer requires a separate build. The combination of the user access control, application compatibility features and ActiveX management will make it easier to maintain standards compliance and best practices as it finally removes the need for users to have local administrator privileges.

The new Windows Power Management features are easier to use, can send unused workstations into a hybrid sleep mode to save energy and can be managed via Group Policy. New diagnostic, recovery and remote assistance tools reduce support costs. Event Viewer is more descriptive and easier to use for troubleshooting. Vista can even warn administrators before a hard drive fails. In addition, the new Network Access Protection (NAP) features built into Windows "Longhorn" ensure that every workstation on your network meets a specific patch level and antivirus definition level. NAP will patch them automatically before allowing them to access network resources.

In my next article, I'll discuss the drawbacks of migrating to Windows Vista.

Bernie Klinder is an IT Project Lead with Blue Chip Consulting Group in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the founder and editor of LabMice.net, a comprehensive resource index for IT professionals who support Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 and BackOffice products. For his contributions to the information technology community, Bernie was selected as a Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft. He can be reached at berniekl@earthlink.net.

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