Windows 7’s Costly Compatibility Issues

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Polished yes, but elevated costs ensuring hardware and software compatibility may hold back business adoption of Windows 7

Two years ago, Microsoft bought not one but two companies with solutions that worked to solve application permission problems in environments where users don’t have administrative credentials; Winternals and Desktop Standard. Although Microsoft did not actually acquire the pertinent technology in the latter case, that technology evolved into the company BeyondTrust, the Winternals technology could have made its way into Windows 7 but seemingly hasn’t.

In my tests of the Winternals technology three ago, I found the underlying privilege escalation worked well but needed to be integrated into Group Policy. With the product now having been at Microsoft for two years, I held out a lot of hope that work could have been done, and that the technology would be mainstreamed within a business-class operating system. But instead, we get XPM and a potential security and administrative nightmare.

In truth, I hate the approach Microsoft is taking with Windows 7 and legacy software. On the surface, I feel it levels the playing field with every other operating system out there, which can also run Windows XP in a virtual instance. So if I need to manage a second desktop, albeit virtually, to run applications that help me do what I need to today, why do I need to pay for a new base OS in the first place?

If I need something modern, is now the right time to look elsewhere, since the backward compatibility story will be largely the same in either case? Or do I simply stick with what works, Windows XP and all its inherent problems, especially since we know that security patches for the older OS will keep coming through 2014?

It is here that Microsoft needs to convince IT implementers that the new features native to Windows 7 will be worth all of the costs that would come with an upgrade; in terms of licensing, hardware, management and the resulting labour to get there; and prove that Windows 7 will deliver things other operating systems can’t.

Microsoft has gone to great lengths to point out Windows 7 represents the first time since Windows 2000 that the company has been able to develop a client and server iteration (Windows Server 2008 R2) in tandem, and the company has promised great things of this team development, with hopes that it will spark a similar level of uptake from its business customers. Features such as DirectAccess always-on remote connectivity and BranchCache local caching are the immediate fruit of this collaboration.

The tight integration with Windows Server 2008 R2, however, could present those testing Windows 7 with complications beyond simply loading the new OS on a laptop. To test DirectAccess or BranchCache within a production environment, testers will need to look closely at their server hardware, or consider testing the server side entirely in virtual instances. This is because the new server iteration will only be available as a 64-bit platform.

Those most likely to be considering an upgrade to the new platforms; organisations still running Windows 2000, which will expire from Extended Support next summer, will probably need to consider a server hardware upgrade. Even those companies that already have 64-bit server platforms in their data centre need to look at whether they are currently running 32-bit iterations of Windows Server on those machines because there is not a direct upgrade path from there to the 64-bit R2 iteration.

Just to be clear, as a user, I really enjoy using Windows 7. I think the new OS represents a vast improvement over Vista or XP, and the RC has already found its way into my day-to-day computing life. I suspect many consumers who spend any time thinking about their OS will feel the same.


However, given the terrible economy, I suspect Microsoft asks too much of its business customers because it’s not just about the cost of the Windows 7 license and the costs to perform the upgrade. It’s about the hardware costs to bring both the client and server fleet up to spec with the new versions, the added licensing costs for third-party management and security solutions, and the spiralling headaches that will come from having to support two desktops where there once was one. And most of all, it’s about trying to stomach these costs when every company is being forced to make cutbacks across the board.

If the gold code of Windows 7 is to come in 2009, and it certainly looks like that will be the case, I don’t think many businesses will have the stomach for it.