Microsoft is betting that Windows Vista's new security and cost reduction features will convince IT managers to speed up their migration plans.
But history shows that when software companies make changes to improve security, that's when applications tend to break. Enterprises may take longer than usual to do their tire kicking on Vista when it ships before the end of 2006 -- and longer still for Longhorn Server, which is still vaguely on Microsoft's calendar for "sometime in 2007."
Windows Vista's next Community Technical Preview, which goes out to beta testers imminently, will include all of the features that will appear in the final product, said Jim Allchin in an interview with SearchWin2000.com. Allchin is co-president for the platform products and services division at Microsoft.
This is the first of Microsoft's products that are built from the ground up following the launch of the Trustworthy Computing initiative four years ago by Bill Gates. Allchin said that just as XP SP2 improved security to the desktop over previous versions of the OS by orders of magnitude, Vista will do the same over XP SP2.
One key new feature is about user account control, which lets IT administrators choose which desktops will have administrator or user rights. By assigning a machine as a "user," anything that happens to that machine can't hurt other machines in the enterprise.
This feature on its own elicits raves from some IT managers. "If they can really make the OS work properly not running as a full administrator on a local machine, then they might have something," said Rick Zach, chief engineer at WCVB, a division of Hearst Argyle Television Inc., New York.
There is also a protected mode for Internet Explorer, which will essentially cordon off the OS from bugs that invade the system via the browser. There is additional hardening against rootkits that block unsigned drivers from loading. Vista also has Network Access Protection (NAP), a system that quarantines a PC while the network checks its security "health." NAP, however, will require Longhorn Server to work.
The big, fuzzy picture
Up until now, Microsoft hasn't done much to educate IT administrators or their bosses about which features in Vista will be most useful to them. On this point, Allchin cites some "cost-saving" features, such as the new hardware-independent image file format, a rewritten event system and built-in memory diagnostics.
The company has been mum on some other important details, such as the hardware requirements that will deliver the optimal Vista experience. Allchin said Microsoft wasn't ready to divulge specifics on this yet but said that any "modern processor" can run Vista.
At a recent MVP summit in Redmond, beta testers like Hearst Argyle's Zach were given video graphics cards so they could see the effects of the Vista Aero glass-like interface. "These were serious video cards," Zach said. "[And] it was enough of an issue to Microsoft if they gave out these cards."
Another example is not what's in the desktop OS, but what's in Longhorn Server itself on which some of Vista's marquee features depend. Microsoft has been quiet on the progress of Longhorn Server, but IT managers know that, apart from NAP, they need both the client and the server to get the best of the new operating system. Some things that work best in both are Office 12 (which ships in 2006), full support for IP v 6.0 and some of the new search features.
Longhorn Server will see a second beta in the second quarter of this year, and as part of that particular trial, Microsoft will be asking IT shops in its Technology Adoption Program for feedback.
Sizzle and steak
Experts say that IT managers should take a close look at Vista client, because even without the server there is much promise. "There are improvements that come with IE 7.0, the [Bitlocker] encryption and support for secure boot, and they don't require the server," said Steve Kleynhans, a research vice president at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn.
The biggest stumbling block to adoption that Kleynhans sees is the mass of legacy applications and devices in every enterprise. "All of these have to be tested with the software," he said. "The very fact that the focus of Vista is security raises the specter that there will be more potential compatibility issues. And whether they are there or not, an organization has to do its due diligence of testing."
Customers also have to check their own product roadmaps and compare that with the lifecycle of the OS they are currently running, said Al Gillen, research director at market research firm IDC., in Framingham, Mass.
More than likely, it will take years for enterprises to move over to Vista and Longhorn, even by the time these products are on the market and widely available. "But [with Vista], I think Microsoft has done a lot to improve the reliability of the OS," Gillen said.