Ask any poker player what the difference is between success and failure. He’ll likely say it comes down to knowing when to hold cards and when to fold. A similar decision is weighing on a growing number of IT managers as they place their bets on Windows 7.
Until recently, many IT departments were sticking with Windows XP. In fact, Microsoft estimates that more than 300 million PCs still run that tried-and-true version of the Windows operating system.
But now, a host of business benefits and technology imperatives are accelerating Windows 7 adoption rates. By the end of 2012, nearly 57 percent of business PCs worldwide will likely be running Windows 7, according to technology research firm Gartner.
Projections like that don’t tell the whole story, however. Windows 7 migrations can be complex, especially in large organizations. Unlike poker, success or failure for Windows 7 implementations depends on more than one simple choice. It requires clearly defined goals, careful planning and an implementation strategy that minimizes disruptions to business operations.
Studies show that organizations have clear goals in mind as they consider a move to Windows 7. At the top of the list is increased performance.
This is a key motivator for 69 percent of the IT professionals who participated in a Symantec 2010 Windows 7 Migration Study released last fall by the software company, which offers solutions for automating Windows 7 migrations.
Increased reliability and improved user experiences were also highly prized potential benefits. (Note that XP still appears to be the most likely platform from which to migrate. According to numbers recently released by Forrester Research, Windows Vista, the immediate predecessor to Windows 7, hit its adoption peak in November 2009, and installations have been dropping ever since.)
A spokesperson for Microsoft identified a number of new features that help Windows 7 address these requirements. They include:
In addition to these new business-productivity features, Windows 7 also offers a number of practical reasons why IT managers may want to start or accelerate migration plans. Over the next 18 months, hardware vendors will gradually ship fewer and fewer new products with XP drivers, opting instead to dedicate their resources to the newer OS.
“Today, I can get Windows XP drivers for probably 80 to 90 percent of the machines that are out there. Next year, the numbers are going way down,” says Michael Silver, research vice president with Gartner.
A similar trend is occurring among software vendors. A steadily increasing number of new applications and major upgrades of existing programs will stop supporting XP. Like hardware vendors, software companies will make hard choices about which Windows versions warrant development resources. The latest edition of critical applications may not be supported on Windows XP, perhaps leaving some businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Concerns about security  will also motivate IT managers to act. Microsoft has announced that its security support for XP will end as of April 2014. Once that happens, the company will stop issuing security fixes, which will leave machines running that version of the OS vulnerable to the latest malware and other attacks by cybercriminals.
But given the extended timetables — perhaps a year for third-party applications and almost three years for security support — some IT managers may conclude that, for the immediate future, other IT priorities surpass a Windows 7 migration. Why not just keep everyone on XP until current machines are refreshed with a new device that comes with factory-installed Windows 7?
Some analysts argue that this migration approach may not work for many large organizations with scores of PCs. They’ll need all the time remaining to execute a well-managed migration strategy that assures everyone is running Windows 7 when the deadlines hit.
“Most organizations buy new PCs every three to five years,” Silver says. “So at this point, they are already too late to just wait for Windows 7 on new PCs.”
When organizations decide to act, the best plan is a multistep implementation strategy. (See the sidebar below for details.)
According to industry experts, different companies have different timeframes allocated to these phases, and many companies go through pilots before the rollout of the new OS. This process usually requires about 12 to 18 months to plan and pilot the program before a rollout can begin. Some companies also provide user and IT training for their employees as a part of the deployment project.
The process should begin with building a business case. The Symantec survey provides ammunition for IT managers trying to convince senior executives to allocate funds for migrations.
For example, among those who set goals for their return on investment, an impressive 90 percent said they attained those benchmarks. The numbers should calm the fears of CEOs and CFOs who worry about fuzzy returns for their investment dollars. The Symantec survey also investigated the business goals that went beyond traditional return on investment.
The study found more good news for business-case developers. Eighty percent of the respondents said Windows 7 helped their organizations significantly increase performance. Slightly more than three-quarters noted an improved end-user experience, and a similar number felt reliability had increased. Additionally, 80 percent said security had increased.
Companies also should assess the current IT environment, starting with the portfolio of business applications — a key component in any operating system upgrade.
“Most users don’t want to run Windows XP or Windows 7 or the Mac OS. They want to run applications,” Silver points out. “They need applications to get their jobs done.”
With that in mind, firms should determine which current applications will remain after the Windows 7 migration and which ones will no longer serve the business.
“For a lot of organizations, migrating to Windows 7 is the biggest housecleaning opportunity since Y2K,” Silver adds. “The typical firm we speak with is able to reduce the number of applications it supports by 25 percent, although we’ve seen organizations that have eliminated half of their applications. And the fewer applications they need to worry about, the more money they’re going to save.”
Also part of the application rationalization process is determining which remaining programs will run on Windows 7 in their current form and which will need to move to newer versions designed for Windows 7.
The next area to tackle is the installed hardware base. IT managers should consider how much useful life is left for each model. If it’s two years or less, the payback for increasing memory and other resources to support Windows 7 may not be enough to justify refurbishing over replacement. The more prudent bet would be to buy a new system with Windows 7 already installed.
Once companies understand the scope of their upgrades, they need to develop a cost estimate for the project. Start with licensing fees: The cost to upgrade application software to support Windows 7 may range from about $200 per seat on the high end to nothing, if an application was updated recently and already supports Windows 7.
In addition, some software vendors provide Windows 7 compatibility without charge. The bottom line: IT managers need to understand the Windows 7 characteristics and licensing terms for each package.
Another potential hidden cost often comes from the labor required to load the new OS onto each machine. This may take from 10 to 20 IT staff hours, or hundreds of dollars, per device. That’s because moving from XP requires more than just inserting a disc into a machine and running an installation program. Instead, technicians must back up the machine, install Windows 7 and associated business applications. Then they must restore the user’s data and test the new configuration.
Migrating to Windows 7 is not an easy process, but significant portions of the process can be automated to reduce strain on the IT staff. To help organizations migrating to Windows 7, Symantec, Microsoft and other vendors offer tools that speed implementation tasks, such as migrating user files to the new platform, or installing Windows and applications once the new operating system is installed.
Here’s a rundown of some options from Microsoft: