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FOSE wrap-up: Microsoft to offer slim OS for older hardware

One of the enduring mysteries of FOSE is why Microsoft Corp., of Redmond Wash., usually waits until the very end of the show to reveal its best new technologies.

Two years ago, as other vendors were packing up their booths, Microsoft demonstrated some pretty nifty new capabilities of the then-upcoming Visual Studio 2005.

This year was even better. Those who stuck around were treated to a sneak peek of the next version of Microsoft's desktop operating system, called Windows Vista, due later this year.

Of course, the presenters'-Microsoft associate technology specialist Rhys Ziemer and Microsoft senior technology specialist Sean Siler'-warned that the features were tentative, and that they could be dropped at any time. But what they revealed looked impressive anyway, ranging from the practical (better group policies) to the downright radical (using memory sticks for extra Random Access Memory).

Ziemer was the first up. He demonstrated a new imaging system for making backups. It is called Windows Image Format, or WIM for short. Not only is WIM good for making compressed ghost images of single systems, it can be used to build individual images for different roles in the office. WIM allows administrators to manage these multiple images as one unit. The common components across all the images are stored in a single location, allowing the administrator to upgrade or patch these components once, rather than updating each separate image.

Patch management will be greatly improved in Vista as well, Ziemer said. With Vista, you could install a patch to a program and then restart that program without rebooting'a first for Microsoft Windows. Ziemer also promised more consistent group policy rights. You can even assign rights to removable storage devices.

Worried about someone downloading sensitive agency information to a USB memory stick? Vista will let administrators set user policies for attaching USB devices to the computers. Administrators can allow users to read, but not write, to these devices. They can bar use of the devices altogether, or even allow only certain types of USB devices, such as keyboards or mice, to interact with the computer.

Microsoft has been thinking a lot about these memory sticks. Siler demonstrated how Vista will actually let you use a detachable memory device as extra RAM (assuming your administrator permits you to do so, of course). With this feature, called Superfetch, you plug in a USB memory stick, and the OS gives you an option to dedicate some or all of the space on that memory stick to pre-load programs that you may want to use later. The upshot is that those programs should pop up a lot quicker when summoned.

Vista will also have much more elaborate performance and diagnostic tools, Siler said. Windows XP's task manager already provides a good amount of detail on what programs and threads are running, but Vista will provide even more detail, such as reads-per-minute or writes-per-minute for individual applications. It will monitor the hardware a lot more closely, alerting users when a component, such as a hard drive, is about to fail. The event logs will offer more detail as well, and will be formatted in the Extensible Markup Language, allowing you to use third-party programs or internal scripts to better parse the alerts when they arise.

Vista will also start up and shut down faster. Siler explained that Microsoft developers have taken advantage of recent advancements in motherboard design to allow users to power down the computer in such a way that actually keeps it running in a suspended state. A tiny amount of wattage still runs through the RAM, allowing it to store open programs. When the user returns to the computer and hits the On button, the OS should spring to life, instantly returning to the exact state in which it was left.

Other performance enhancements include something called Compound TCP, which is a tweaking of the TCP/IP stack (rewritten from scratch for Vista by the way'and IPv6 ready) for faster downloading. Compound TCP eliminates the dropoff in download speeds usually experienced with large files. The OS continually adjusts the Maximum Transmission Unit to achieve optimal throughput.

On the cosmetic side, Microsoft is also getting rid of the 'My...' nomenclature. You know the 'My Computer' and the 'My Neighborhood Network' icons? They're gone. The icons will just be tagged 'Computer' or 'Network,' and so on. Yes, we are all grown up now and no longer need baby names for our hardware.

Vista does have some downsides as well, but it's refreshing to see Microsoft addressing some of these issues. Number one concern these days seems to be the requirement for some hefty hardware. As you've probably have heard, Vista will need at least 512MB of RAM to run properly (and really would be happier with 1GB). The video card will need to support the new Windows Display Driver Model. The OS will require some serious processing power as well.

So chances are that the computers on many people's desktops will not be Vista-capable. With this in mind, Microsoft will offer a stripped down version of Windows XP for older hardware that agencies will be able to use until they buy those new Vista-capable units.

Called Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs, this slimmed version of XP will run on as little as 64MB of RAM, a 133Mhz CPU and 10GB of hard drive space. The company plans to support it through the entire lifecycle of Vista (unlike XP itself), Ziemer said.

Ziemer didn't recommend running programs on Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs, though. The OS was configured to run Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player and not a whole lot else. You could theoretically run Microsoft Office, but Ziemer advised against it. Rather, this software was designed to use older computers as terminal servers, with which workers could access their programs'such as that copy of Microsoft Office'from a server.

Useful as this OS may seem, don't expect to run down to the local Best Buy and grab a copy for your old PC. It can only be obtained as part of an existing enterprise agreement with Microsoft. It's clearly aimed for organizations with whose desktop computer refresh cycles extend the lifespan of their current units beyond the time period Microsoft will support XP. We're glad Microsoft can extend the lifespan of these older machines for a few more years.

Finally, those still running 16-bit applications may be disheartened to learn that the 64-bit version of Vista will not support 16-bit apps, Ziemer said. The 32-bit version of Vista will still support the legacy programs, though.

Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Mar 13, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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