Windows 8's winding path to agency networks

The release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 isn’t expected to trigger a stampede among government agencies, but the operating system’s features nonetheless intrigue agency IT managers facing growing demands for the latest mobile and security technologies.

The new OS is arriving as many agencies continue to grapple with their transitions from Windows XP to Windows 7. Extended support for Windows XP expires in 2014, compelling agencies to complete their moves away from the platform.

Other factors also could argue against an imminent Windows 8 migration. Budget-strapped agencies, having recently switched to Windows 7, may not be eager to support an additional OS. End-user training presents another concern, as the Windows 8’s user interface marks a sharp departure from previous versions of the OS.

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And while its improved security features are attracting attention, those capabilities must compete with other items on the IT department’s agenda. “I’ve got 8 on my radar,” said Rod Davenport, chief technology officer for Michigan. “My priority in the short term is to finish up our Windows 7 rollout.”

Michigan is pursuing its Windows 7 switch in conjunction with an Office 365 cloud project, which is expected to take 10 months to complete.

With so many shifts to Windows 7 in progress or recently completed, it’s unlikely that many agencies will jump immediately to Windows 8. But that’s not to say government technologists are ignoring it.

IT managers expressed interest in Windows 8’s features and its arrival on a new crop of tablet devices. Indeed, Windows 8 could debut in some government offices on tablets rather than on the desktop, especially if there is demand for its apps. Another way the OS could initially work its way into agencies is via virtual desktops, an idea that is catching on in government.

Windows 7 focus

Davenport’s view is shared by others in government IT. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently deployed new universal laptops running Windows 7, but a USPTO manager said there are no plans to upgrade to Windows 8 at this time.

In a similar position, most of the Commerce Department is on XP, though some agencies have already started migrating to Windows 7, according to Commerce CIO Simon Szykman. At this point, Commerce has no specific timeline for departmentwide migration to Windows 7, he said, but the Office of the CIO is looking to complete its Windows 7 migration during fiscal 2013.

Meanwhile, Travis Howerton, chief technology officer for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said the agency is moving ahead with its Windows 7 migration.

The cost of an upgrade is one reason Windows migrations tend to take time. “The traditional process for testing and implementing a Windows upgrade is expensive due to the large amount of manual labor to install,” Howerton said. “The result is that NNSA has made steady progress in our migration to Windows 7 within our budget constraints, but there is still more work to be done at some sites.”

The need to train users becomes an issue in any software acquisition. Davenport said he believes Windows 8, with its touch-friendly UI that differs from its predecessors (although it also includes an option to set the interface back to look like Windows 7), will involve a “little bit of a user training burden.”

“There is some lack of user familiarity and subsequent need to train employees with any new operating system,” said Commerce’s Szyman, adding that, “other considerations include the availability of compatible security tools and compatibility of legacy applications with a new operating system.”

Another factor: systems administration. IT shops often create operating system images to facilitate configuration and deployment. The goal is to manage as few images as possible for a more efficient and cost-effective desktop environment.

For IT departments, moving away from a standard image is a big deal, according to Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights. He noted that administrators need to manage software upgrades and patch management for each new image they take on.

“That issue is looming in the background from a management standpoint,” McCarthy said. “Most agencies aren’t going to say we are jumping to 8 immediately.”

McCarthy said organizations that have built a stable image that users are happy with, won’t be inclined to adopt a new OS without a compelling reason to do so. “Without the killer need, it’s easier to keep the status quo,” he said.

Tablets could be first

Some IT managers said they will be watching for Windows 8’s touch interface and the new tablets soon to be using it. A number of tablets are expected to hit the market running Windows 8 or Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 for devices equipped with ARM-based microprocessors. Among those will be the Microsoft-branded Surface tablet, which will come in both Windows RT and Windows 8 varieties.

“I’m interested in taking a look at some of the Microsoft slates and tablets,” Davenport said. “I think it’s reasonable to say that if we decide to take a look and explore some of the tablets, I think Windows 8 could be in consideration there.”

Davenport said it’s possible that Windows 8 could arrive first on tablets in some organizations. But the unfolding of that particular scenario, he noted, will depend to a significant degree on user demand on the app side.

“I think the first experience with Windows 8 for many of us will be on tablets,” Howerton added. “Our users are demanding mobility while IT demands security. Over time, you will see more penetration of Windows 8 into the desktop/laptop arena.”

As for other Windows 8 features, those in security could influence migration. Howerton pointed to the software’s memory manager component, which he said has seen huge upgrades. “In particular, the heap manager now randomizes memory allocation,” he said. “This makes it significantly harder to overwrite specific memory blocks — usually through buffer overflows — to allow the execution of arbitrary code.”

Commerce will “consider a number of factors in deciding to make the move to Windows 8,” said Szykman, including security settings, granularity of controls on user permissions, familiarity, user demand, and interoperability.

But nothing beyond that security feature strikes Howerton as justification for an immediate move to Windows 8. “It will likely be more of a gradual move with refresh and dipping our feet in the water early with tablets and some touch-enabled all-in-ones in the near term,” he said.

The virtual path

One path to Windows 8 may go through virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), an approach that hosts a user’s desktop operating system as a virtual machine on a server. VDI eliminates the need to tinker with individual client devices when new software rolls out. McCarthy said agencies could explore Windows 8 as virtual desktops, noting an increased interest in VDI in government agencies.

Howerton suggested that VDI could provide a smoother upgrade path. “As we scale out our implementations of [VDI], we will enable a more seamless process for Windows upgrades that would be much quicker and cheaper to implement,” he said.

Howerton said layering — separating the underlying OS from user settings and applications, for example —also could allow faster and/or cheaper upgrade experiences even on traditional client-side machines.

In the meantime, McCarthy said he believes most agencies will take a wait-and-see attitude with Windows 8. He noted that many government IT departments will obtain a handful of machines to learn about configuration and check into compatibility issues.

Davenport said he has run the Windows 8 preview release on his home computer, noting that the OS seems like it is pretty solid. “I will keep an eye on it,” he said.

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