Bigger, better, faster
It's official: Windows 7 is a lot quicker and more reliable than both XP and Vista, as validated by numerous independent benchmarks. It can also take full advantage of the 64-bit, multicore and hyper-threading processor technologies now widespread even on low-cost PCs, resulting in a platform that boots quicker and requires far less in terms of both processing power and memory resources.
It's a lot more efficient at handling the desktop UI, connecting to network resources and handling storage. All of these points add up to a faster operating system and more responsive applications, even on relatively low-spec laptops.
Windows 7 also improves upon its predecessors by running background processes only when needed and adding networking enhancements, especially on the wireless side. There are also major improvements when it comes to putting PCs to sleep and waking them up again, making the process quicker and a lot more reliable than in early versions of Windows.
But do you really need all this extra pizazz? There are lots of ways to increase desktop performance without the cost and upheaval required to swap out the operating system. For example, adding more RAM will give most desktops an instant lift and is something you probably need to do anyway, even if set on migrating to Windows 7. Moreover, if maximising performance is your goal, there are a number of other alternatives such as desktop virtualisation — where processing can be partly offloaded to powerful servers — or switching to a different, leaner operating system altogether.
Fundamentally secure — or not?
According to Microsoft, Windows 7 is a "fundamentally secure platform" and a major step up in security terms from XP and Vista. Whether that's true or not is open to debate, but there are certainly plenty of security enhancements, many building on technologies introduced in Vista that Windows 7 makes better and easier to apply.
BitLocker drive encryption, for example, is extended to support removable media in BitLocker To Go. User Access Control (UAC) technology, where additional privileges are needed for OS changes to be made, is now far less obtrusive.
There are new tools as well, including AppLocker, which can be used to lock down and control user applications, and DirectAccess, giving remote and mobile workers secure network access without the need for a complex VPN setup. Built-in support for smartcards and biometric authentication technologies such as fingerprint readers is now standard; the built-in firewall gets support for multiple active policies. There are numerous security enhancements in the Internet Explorer (IE) 8 browser.
It's not all good news. Windows 7 is far from invincible. Its vulnerabilities will require regular patching to stay secure. More than that, there are limits as to how secure Windows can be made. As a result...
...the majority of businesses will already have network firewall, antivirus, anti-spam, anti-spyware and other defences in place. These will generally work regardless of the desktop platform involved, so are the security enhancements in Windows 7 really going to make that much difference?
More compatible this time around
It's important to look at how well — or otherwise — Windows 7 is at working with your existing devices and applications, especially given that a lack of compatibility proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for businesses considering the migration to the last big Windows release, Vista.
Apart from necessary extensions to embrace new features and technologies, driver and application interfaces are more-or-less unchanged from Vista to Windows 7. Moreover, having had plenty of time to sort out the bugs on Vista, there should be far fewer problems getting third-party products to work with its successor.
Some compatibility issues are inevitable, however, and there will always be applications that either can't be made to work or that will need expensive updates before they can. These situations can be handled by the built-in XP Mode option, which is effectively a bundled copy of Microsoft Virtual PC, running a Windows XP virtual machine on the Windows 7 desktop.
XP Mode is a neat way of getting around a lot of compatibility issues, but isn't a complete solution and adds extra complexity that may be hard for users to understand. Some companies may opt for a partial migration and keep some older systems to run such applications, or they may delay migration to Windows 7 altogether until all of the compatibility bugs are ironed out.
Management and support
Finally, there's the little matter of management and support — major factors when it comes to overall cost of ownership. Windows 7 has much to commend it, including an intuitive interface that should enable users to become more productive once familiar with how it works and make fewer calls to the help desk.
Windows 7 also comes with tools to help with common management tasks, including the ability to run PowerShell scripts and commands both locally and on remote PCs. There are extra management benefits to be gained from deploying Windows 7 together with Windows Server 2008 and using Microsoft's System Center tools to manage the setup.
System Center is not the only management platform around, though, and a lot of companies will have well-established solutions that will have to be revised and updated in order to support Windows 7.
Again, this can add to both the cost and complexity of the project. Just as with the performance, security and compatibility, it's a matter of 'buyer beware', calling for careful research into what your business has to gain and lose, before deciding whether or not Windows 7 is what you really need.