Windows 7 alluring, but XP is the migration X factor

Clock ticking on support for corporate shops that bypassed Vista

Corporate migration to Windows 7 may be less about evaluating the new Microsoft operating system and more about how to properly gauge the correct time to get XP off client desktops.

The equation corporate IT pros will have to figure out is how long it will take to get all their XP desktops to Windows 7 before XP support runs out or before application vendors quit producing XP versions of upgrades or new software, which some predict could come as early as 2012.

Windows 7 is the shiny new operating system from Microsoft slated to arrive this fall to replace Windows Vista, which after 30 months has failed in the eyes of IT buyers.

Windows 7 offers a host of tantalizing corporate features such as AppLocker, DirectAccess, Branch Cache and XP Mode, a virtualization technology that should buy time for users who migrate but must hold on to key legacy applications.

Gartner predicts that more than half of the corporate Windows user-base is skipping Vista and aiming at Windows 7.While that means XP users won't have to tangle with Vista in name, it doesn't mean they will avoid the application compatibility issues that gave Vista a black eye right out of the blocks in November 2006. Windows 7 is built on the Vista code base.

"If you are on XP, Windows 7 isn't going to solve a lot of Vista's migration problems," says Brett Waldman, a research analyst for IDC. "Going from Vista to Windows 7 should be a much easier transition than XP to 7."

Users who have deployed Vista have an easier path because Microsoft provides an upgrade option not available to XP users, and because they have already solved their application compatibility issues.

Microsoft says nearly all applications that run on Vista will run on Windows 7 and early testing by users is beginning to validate that claim.

In addition, hardware upgrades made for Vista are relevant for Windows 7 rollouts.

While those rollouts won't be painless for Vista converts, it is those on the XP side who will have to tap into their planning and organizational skills.

The XP equation

The predominant migration questions among those coming off XP are "when" and "how."

"What we are saying is that by the end of 2012 you should be off XP," says Michael Silver, vice president and research director at Gartner. With most large corporations taking 12 to 18 months to test and pilot a new operating system, the migration clock is ticking.

"If I target the end of 2012 to get XP out then you have your migration window," he says. "Organizations really need to be poised to do a lot of migrations on new machines and some existing ones in 2011 and 2012. That will be the mainstream of the migrations."

Silver says Gartner's recommendation is a conservative one that provides a 15-month buffer before XP support ends on April 8, 2014. Mainstream support for XP ended in April 2009, just a year after XP SP3 shipped.

Microsoft for its part told XP users last month (MAY) that if they are just starting to test Vista that they should switch to Windows 7.

Silver recommends users in that boat switch only if it means less than a six-month delay in their current planning. "You don't want to lose momentum. If you have already done lots of testing or might be set to deploy you should continue with Vista," he says. "One of the big issues here is that Vista is a difficult decision politically at this point, but the folks that have migrated to Vista are generally happy."

Hitching the migration horse to the Windows 7 wagon, however, doesn't mean users won't have to take along issues that polluted Vista acceptance.

Applications that were not compatible with Vista won't work on Windows 7. The new XP Mode, available with professional, ultimate and enterprise editions, will give users a bit of a respite, but not a panacea.

With both Windows 7 (the host operating system) and XP (guest) running on a single machine, users will be forced to maintain and patch two operating systems per desktop.

Analysts such as IDC's Waldman and Gartner's Silver say it's a short-term solution.

"To take full advantage of new enhancements in Windows 7, which is what users are paying for, the app needs to be built for Windows 7," Waldman says. He says XP Mode is likely a one- to two-year Band-Aid.

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