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What CIOs Think About Windows 7

Most are doing some testing, but many have no firm deployment plans.

The XP Factor

Microsoft is giving mixed messages about the death of XP. Mainstream support for the OS ended in April, meaning Microsoft will offer security updates but no free tech or warranty support, with hot fixes for Software Assurance customers. Extended support will end in 2014. However, Microsoft, bowing to market pressure, agreed to let customers downgrade to Windows XP until April 2011. (Companies can't buy XP anymore, so to stay on it they buy Vista and downgrade to XP.)

In fact, the biggest factor driving companies to upgrade is the end of XP support, which doesn't sit well with many CIOs. "I really don't like the extremely costly upgrade cycle Microsoft kind of forces on you," says Jay Wallis, CIO of commercial roofing company Empire Roofing, who has no firm plans for Windows 7. "Right now, for us at least, XP seems to be a very stable platform, so rocking the boat is something we have to take very seriously. At least through the Vista part of history we've gone through now, I'm a little distrustful of Microsoft." In fact, Wallis considers XP to be so stable that he's not very worried about losing the extra support from Microsoft.

That's a sentiment we hear echoed in many of our executive interviews. The University of Massachusetts Memorial Hospital also is sticking with XP. "There's a point when we will move out of XP because it will simply run out of support," says CIO George Benckle, but for now, he'll rely on baseline support.

Benckle's decision isn't for lack of research. His team is running Windows 7 in its labs, but none of the new operating system's features stand out enough to demand a change. "Is there anything Windows XP can't do?" he says. "I just can't make those feature arguments to save money with Windows 7."

Plenty of people agree. The lack of a business driver for upgrading, and the lack of a solid ROI case, are among the top five barriers to Windows 7 adoption, according to our survey. But there are actually plenty of things Windows 7 can do that XP can't.

Improved security is a major driver behind the decision to upgrade, right behind the end of Windows XP support. XP lacks support for Network Access Protection, which came with Vista and continues in Win 7. That provides the ability to control a computer's access to a corporate network based on its security settings. Vista also brought in BitLocker hard-drive encryption and User Account Control security prompts, while Windows 7 adds BitLocker To Go, which encrypts USB keys. BitLocker setup also has been simplified and User Account Control made less intrusive.

Windows 7 also gives IT more control over the applications users can run, thanks to AppLocker. AppLocker lets admins create a whitelist of apps that can be installed, plus room for exceptions based on hashes, vendor or file name, file version, and product name. It can manage executables, Windows installer files, and DLLs, so that employees don't install or use incompatible, dangerous, or unwanted software or files.

Windows XP has none of those features and requires additional software or hardware purchases to add them. "Windows XP came out in 2001. Data compliance, leakage, all those things have changed since then, and that's what's keeping people up right now," says Jason Leznak, a group product manager for Windows.

Win 7 Easier On The Hardware

One big rap against Vista was the beefy hardware requirements--including 1 GB of recommended RAM --that made it impractical to run on older PCs. Microsoft did a number of things under the hood in Windows 7 to improve the use of RAM and multiprocessing. While Microsoft recommends the same hardware for Windows 7 as for Vista, several early adopters plan, based on their testing, to run the new OS on PCs with as little as 512 MB of RAM.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is one of those. Having skipped Vista, it plans to be "very aggressive" in rolling out Windows 7, says CIO Jerry Johnson. He's most interested in Windows 7's security features, which fit with the focus the Department of Energy--of which Pacific Northwest Lab is a part--is putting on cybersecurity. But his move will be hastened by the fact that Windows 7 can run on those smaller-RAM PCs.

Jerry Johnson, CIO, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory -- Photo by Tom Sullivan
Johnson: "Very aggressive" Win 7 plan
Photo by Tom Sullivan
At ETS-Lindgren, where global IT architect Border estimates that Windows 7 can run on 70% of the company's PCs, the company hopes to have Windows 7 on as many as half of its PCs by April, while allowing the company to buy fewer new PCs. "There are a lot of assets we have that we could actually keep and renew the warranty on rather than replace," he says. "I'm telling my finance people this is an option we have that we didn't have before." Border also recently renegotiated his enterprise licensing agreement with Microsoft, slashing his costs by adopting early.

Microsoft also is promising that new tools in Windows 7 will cut help desk calls. For example, employees can use a feature to record an error and send the video to the help desk. New troubleshooting features let help desks set up automatic troubleshooting scripts for common problems.

However, even companies that covet Windows 7 features will face a big barrier given tight IT budgets. Garry Robinson, IT manager for KSLA News 12 in Shreveport, La., has been testing Windows 7 for six months and likes the new security options, especially AppLocker. But the station recently put PC upgrades and new operating system licenses on hold. "If things get better in 2010, we could start replacing existing machines," he says.

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