Federal agencies prepare to make the leap from XP to Windows 7

Government adoption of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system has been anemic, at best. But with just over a month to go before the public release of its successor, the prospects seem much better for Windows 7.

 In this report:

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Microsoft officials say they are fairly certain of a pent-up demand for Windows 7, based on the avalanche of requests they have received for agency briefings. The company also has added extra sales support for Windows 7. Other information technology vendors are gearing up for a rush of business.

“Since the beta release of Windows 7 in January, there’s been a widespread excitement,” said Michael Van Cleave, a technical specialist at CDW Government’s Microsoft practice. “It’s been one of the largest downloads, and we expect the majority of our clients to make the leap over the next several years.”

For most civilian agencies, the upgrade will likely be straight from Windows XP to Windows 7, bypassing Vista altogether. That version of the Microsoft operating system was widely panned following its formal release in early 2007, five years after the release of XP.

Vista was criticized for a host of application compatibility issues, bloated software and slow performance. Many users opted to revert to XP rather than continue to struggle with Vista.

Ed Leary, a technology specialist at Microsoft Federal, said he thinks much of the Vista criticism has been overblown. It was based mainly on compatibility problems that were the result of commercial user reports, he said, and government agencies have been far better at keeping up with the newest revisions of applications and haven’t run into those problems as frequently.

Vista does have significant advantages over XP, including much stronger security built into the operating system. Microsoft baked many of the federal government’s security recommendations into Vista, and security was expected to be a strong selling point.

For some organizations, that proved to be the case. The Army and Air Force chose to go with Vista based almost entirely on their security requirements and Vista's ability to meet them without the purchase of additional security software to work with XP, Leary said.

The Army and Air Force expect to finish their Vista deployments by the end of 2009. The Air Force is already working on developing a Windows 7 implementation of the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC). Microsoft has followed up on the Air Force initiative with its own FDCC effort for Windows 7.

Outside the military, however, it’s a different matter, because the natural upgrade path to Windows 7 is from Vista.

“The vast majority of civilian agencies are still on XP,” Leary said.

What to expect

Will the Windows 7 experience be any better?

Early reviews have been positive. Michael Cherry, vice president of operating systems research at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm focused solely on tracking Microsoft, said the improvement in performance he has seen so far shows Microsoft got a lot right with Windows 7.

Cherry said he saw a demonstration by a Microsoft official of Windows 7 running on a netbook with about 1G of RAM and a low-power processor, and at first, he didn’t believe it could be a full copy of the operating system. Then he bought his own netbook, installed Windows 7, “and it was shocking how well it ran,” he said.

“I bought a desktop machine some time ago, and I’ve never been satisfied with it running Vista,” he said. “With Windows 7, I’m a much happier user.”

Leary said users moving from Vista to Windows 7 on the same platform could see an average 20 percent improvement in performance depending on which applications they run. Cherry didn’t dispute that.

The ease of the upgrade to Windows 7 will depend on the path agencies take to that upgrade. For example, if they already have Vista installed, they have an upgrade path in place. Even if agencies intend to skip Vista and go directly to Windows 7 from XP, Leary advised them to conduct FDCC Vista image testing because the same tools intended for Vista compatibility testing will also work with Windows 7.

Many agencies seem to be opting for that route. For example, NASA is planning to move directly to Windows 7 from XP, but acting Chief Information Officer Bobby German said the agency has already conducted extensive testing in preparation for deployment, and infrastructure and interoperability issues are expected to be minimal.

“Windows 7 testing is expected to be completed soon after its production release,” German said. “The primary consideration at this point is official support of Windows 7 from NASA’s key application and service providers.”

Pick your spots

Not everything can or should move to Windows 7 from XP. For example, many agencies have mission-critical custom applications developed for Windows XP. The Defense Department and Microsoft worked together to develop hardened versions of XP. Moving those to Windows 7 could take some time, if they move at all.

To accommodate agencies in those situations, Microsoft has included several tools that allow users to run XP in a virtualized environment. XP Mode is aimed at small organizations and requires a manual configuration of each machine that is running Windows 7. The Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) tool allows centrally managed XP Mode configuration of all machines across an organization.

The advantage of MED-V is that it allows for simultaneous updates for Windows 7 and XP environments just by patching the servers, Cherry said. So he expects many larger agencies to take that option, even though it will cost more.

Microsoft also is providing an application toolkit that users can run on the machines that they want to move to Windows 7. It will let them see whether there are any application incompatibilities and how to remedy them.

Microsoft also offers a one-week program specifically for government customers, called the Application Compatibility Factory. The program runs in conjunction with Microsoft vendor partners and resellers and aims to help agencies that want to move directly to Windows 7 from XP.

The company has presented application compatibility workshops to segments of almost every agency during the past two years, Leary said, so there has already been a broad exposure to the upgrade requirements.

As long as agencies have gone through the necessary remediation steps and identified which applications they need to upgrade and which need to run in XP Mode, the migration to Windows 7 should go fairly smoothly, he said.

Hardware could be a problem, depending on where agencies are in their tech refresh cycle. Van Cleave said a system with a 1.8 GHz processor, 2G of RAM and 40G of hard drive space will be needed to run Windows 7. In some cases, you might get by with less, according to tests by the GCN Lab, but that wouldn’t be an ideal situation.

“Any hardware agencies have bought over the past three years should run Windows 7 just fine,” he said. “But anything from before then will probably need to be replaced.”

There are some time constraints on agencies. Microsoft is due to end its mainstream support for Windows XP at the end of January 2010 so, theoretically, agencies will be required to install Vista or Windows 7 by then.

However, Leary said, most Microsoft government customers have bought extended XP support, which lasts for another four years after that deadline.

Government watchers will have their first chance to judge the demand for Windows 7 in mid-November. Microsoft expects to hold a launch specifically for federal customers and will field questions about Windows 7 and potential problems. The company also will hold demonstrations of things such as FDCC compliance.


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