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Gartner favors OS upgrade through attrition

A Gartner analyst explains why the consultancy recommends a program of "managed diversity" for companies looking to introduce a new operating system in their IT environment.

special-reportEditor's note: IT analysts at Partners Healthcare System Inc. shared their insights with on a recent internal study about how and when it will migrate from Windows 2000. Watch for coverage when Partners makes its final decision.

In the world of enterprise IT, you can introduce a new operating system by going for the big bang, or you can opt for a long goodbye.

When Partners Healthcare System Inc. started looking at how it would migrate off Windows 2000, it considered OS models along these lines from Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn., consulting firm.

[With managed diversity] you don't get the colossal expense of upgrading.

Jim Marra, analyst Partners Healthcare

One Gartner model, called enforced homogeneity, is the current status quo at Partners. In this scenario, a company stays on an OS for as long as possible. When it comes time to upgrade, the organization changes all systems at once. The advantage of this approach is that is simplifies things by minimizing testing and reducing the number of images, said James Marra, a senior research analyst at Boston-based Partners.

With enforced homogeneity, customers often skip one or more OS updates. For Partners, that meant skipping Windows 98 and NT on the desktop. "Now it was our assumption that we would skip XP," he said.

In the past, skipping an OS was not a big deal because Microsoft used to release a new version of Windows every 18 months, and few felt the need to keep up with that pace. And it was a helpful strategy for Partners because it, like most companies, have to worry not just about upgrading an OS, but pulling together all the ancillary pieces that go along with the upgrade, such as ISV support, application support and hardware support.

OS upgrades through hardware attrition

Gartner's second model is called managed diversity. When a new OS comes out, a customer might choose to buy all new hardware, never touching the old devices when it's time to upgrade the software.

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"Here you don't get the colossal expense of upgrading," Marra said. "You let [the PC] age out of your population."

Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner, said that the consultancy usually recommends managed diversity for most companies. There are two exceptions. One is for smaller organizations (500 users or less), which may not have the resources to support two OSes.

A second exception is for companies that develop a decent number of applications internally. Most companies have packaged applications and it's the responsibility of that vendor to make its software work with an OS, be it Windows 2000 or XP. But it's more complicated when it's the customer's responsibility to make an application work with an operating system.

"For some companies, the extra costs may make it worth staying on a single OS," Silver said.

Risking no OS support

Silver said that the danger of trying to stay homogenous is that enterprises sometimes let a version of Windows outlive its usefulness. "I still get calls from folks with NT 4.0, and NT 4.0 support will be gone this year, including fixes for security holes," Silver said. "And trying to stay on a single OS makes people stay on an older OS."

As it turns out, just after Partners began its current study, Microsoft issued its Lifecycle Support Policy, which informed customers such as Partners that extended support for Windows 2000 would end in March 2007. If this end-of-life date sticks -- and it's not clear if it will -- Partners would be left with a large installed base on an unsupported OS, if it hasn't already begun a migration.

"That is not a tenable solution for us," said William Henderson, another senior research analyst at Partners.

Even if the Longhorn version of Windows ships in early 2007 -- as some predict -- moving all of Partners' servers and desktops to that operating system will be no small task. A less-robust release might require less preparation, and an enterprise could possibly roll out the software to desktops in about three or four months. But Longhorn is a major Windows upgrade, and Partners' IT analysts think they may need at least a year of testing before installing it across the enterprise.

Of course, those assumptions could easily change in the constantly shifting sands of software development. If there's any substance to the recent talk of Microsoft slimming down the most ambitious features of Longhorn to get it out the door in 2006, it could be back to the drawing board for IT planners.

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