A Clearer View Of Vista - InformationWeek

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3/31/2006
04:05 PM
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A Clearer View Of Vista

With the next major release of Microsoft Windows on the horizon, businesses need to start planning now. Our survey shows what some business technology professionals have in mind--and why.

Security Sells
Companies find lots of reasons to put off buying nice-to-have features like better graphics and collaboration, but something that might lock down data on a laptop stolen from an employee's car feels more urgent.

Upside, bar chartVista packs a lot of new security and data protection features. Technology called BitLocker encrypts and password-protects the contents of a laptop's hard drive, which should make it harder to access data on a stolen PC or for a thief to remove the hard disk and use another computer to read its contents. That feature works with a small chip called the Trusted Platform Module, which Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba have been installing on their business PCs. Each time a user boots up, it checks to see if the PC is in the same state or whether any system files have been altered. If so, the drive locks up.

That's a big selling point as companies face pressure to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulations that include data protection provisions and face embarrassing public disclosure if data is lost. "Vista isn't going to make you compliant out of the box," says Mark Hassall, Microsoft's director of Windows client product management, but it can help batten down mobile laptops and provide an easier way for IT departments to track crashes and security alerts.

Vista also offers more for fighting malware. It includes a new suite of antivirus and anti-spyware software that Microsoft has assembled through internal development and acquisitions. A feature called user account control means Vista apps will run, by default, with limited permissions for other software to access the operating system's core files, unlike older versions of Windows. That means most users will operate in a protected mode and only temporarily elevate privileges to do things like install software and devices.

Another new feature, called Network Access Protection, is designed to work with Microsoft's next version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn. Longhorn and Vista should let IT departments set up automatic scans of laptops entering a company's network and quarantine those that are behind on security updates.

But is that enough? Some customers are eager to take Vista for a spin, "but I don't know if there's a big wave of people just dying to start implementing it," says Doug Phillips, senior director of emerging technologies at Seneca Data, a system builder that's testing Vista. "Look at the nightmares we had with Windows XP."

Windows XP's Service Pack 2 delivers a lot of the protection that Vista promises if companies do some legwork like adding smart card authentication and customized quarantine software to their networks. That makes the case for upgrading less clear. XP shops "have an interesting dilemma," says Larry LeSueur, a VP at IT consulting firm Avanade, a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft.

Downside, bar chartPrice Point
Microsoft is pushing hard on the security benefits to sell its largest customers on its Software Assurance maintenance contracts. Companies that buy Software Assurance with a given product get access to each upgrade Microsoft puts out, in exchange for an annual fee instead of a one-time license for the new version. But at about $40 a year per desktop, the number of customers signing up for Software Assurance for Windows has dropped since Microsoft introduced it five years ago. Given the long lag times between products--Vista will arrive more than five years after Windows XP--more companies are deciding they're not going to shell out every year.

With Vista, customers without Software Assurance will be penalized. Only buyers that sign up for it or Microsoft's top-tier Enterprise Agreement licenses will get access to BitLocker, for example. Other features, such as support for multiple languages in the same operating system image, also are limited to Software Assurance customers.

Respondents to the InformationWeek survey are divided--55% of the 482 respondents at companies with Microsoft volume licensing agreements say they plan to acquire Vista with Software Assurance, and 45% don't.

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