Should businesses upgrade to Vista?

IT managers need to consider whether Microsoft's new Vista operating system is worth installing — and if it is, when the roll-out should begin.
Written by Roger Howorth, Contributor

Better security and integrated search options are the main reasons given by Microsoft for the upgrade to Vista. Of the security features, the most obvious is a new version of Internet Explorer that includes improvements to help prevent successful phishing attacks. It also includes the new Windows Defender anti-spyware tool. Both of these components will be attractive to smaller businesses because such companies are less likely to have purchased dedicated security software to tackle these problems than bigger firms.

Likewise, the new integrated search tool should help users find documents that they or their colleagues have created. Although alternative search tools are freely available on the web, having one integrated into the operating system means one less chore for whoever installs new PCs. Again, because of the probable lack of IT resources, such features are of particular interest to smaller businesses.

Hardware issues
On the other hand, Microsoft says that PCs need at least 15GB of disk space just to install the Vista operating system, which rules out the upgrade for most notebooks and many of the desktop PCs in use today. Early adopters could also face problems getting hold of suitable drivers for peripherals such as network interface cards.

Business users may need to reach a decision on the Windows Aero display mode offered by Vista. This 3D user interface may offer some productivity gains — for example, by providing transparent screen gadgets and attractive 3D animations. But Aero requires a high-specification video card, so it’s unlikely to be an option for most corporate desktop systems, which typically have basic graphics adapters. Users may also feel they need some training before getting to grips with Aero. Fortunately there's an alternative to Aero that doesn't need either sophisticated hardware or user training.

Software compatibility 
Our evaluation of Vista showed that the biggest hurdle to adoption is likely to be software compatibility. Although the Vista kernel is largely unchanged from the XP one, Microsoft has added Kernel Patch Protection (KPP) to the Vista kernel for 64-bit systems. KPP is a significant update, which changes the operating system’s internal workings. Although designed to help improve security, it is likely to be incompatible with some third-party software products, so suppliers are likely to need a long time to test and certify that their offerings are safe to use with Vista. In the meantime, if you upgrade your systems to the new OS, you may no longer receive support for some applications and peripheral devices, even if they appear to work adequately.

Installing Vista
We installed the 16 November Vista Ultimate release candidate onto a desktop PC fitted with 1GB of RAM, two SCSI hard disks and an Nvidia Riva TNT2 Model 64 graphics adapter.

Before installing the operating system, we booted our desktop with Windows XP Professional and loaded the Vista installation disk into our system. The Vista DVD automatically launched a graphical installation utility for checking the PC’s compatibility with Vista and for installing the operating system. We used the 'Check compatibility online' button, which opened our default web browser and took us to a Microsoft site where we could download the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor. This utility ran for just over a minute before reporting a list of minor issues and advice on how to handle them.

Vista offers to check your system's compatibility before proceeding with the installation. Taking this option results in Microsoft's Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor being downloaded and run.

Even though our system had a total of about 300GB disk space, including one unused partition of 42.15GB, the utility advised us to upgrade our disks because we didn’t have enough free space. The messages about disk space could be a little confusing for some people because the tool produces a message for each Windows drive letter. Our system had several such drives, so were told three times that Vista needs at least 15GB and to add a hard disk or free up some space. The tool also spotted that our graphics adapter was not powerful enough to run Aero.

Messages from the upgrade advisor about disk space could be confusing for some people because the tool produces a message for each Windows drive letter.

As far as hardware and peripherals were concerned, the upgrade advisor also told us to look on the manufacturers’ web sites for driver updates for the sound card and Hauppauge WinTV card. It also reported no compatibility data for our LogMeIn remote control software, VMware virtual Ethernet adapters and Widcomm Bluetooth adapter. On the applications front, there were concerns about MetaFrame Presentation Server Client, J2SE Runtime Environment 5.0, MSN Explorer and Microsoft ActiveSync 4.0.

On the upside, the upgrade advisor reported there are no issues with our Asus P4P800 motherboard or our Adaptec 2200S SCSI Raid controller.

As well as querying several hardware devices, the upgrade advisor reported concerns about MetaFrame Presentation Server Client, J2SE Runtime Environment 5.0, MSN Explorer and Microsoft ActiveSync 4.0.

We used the autostart feature to boot our system with the Vista installation disk. After about three minutes this produced a screen asking us to confirm the language to install and the country-specific settings for keyboard, time and currency. The next screen had only three options: to install Vista; to repair a broken installation; and access to pre-installation information sources. We took the Install Now option, and were then asked for a serial number and to confirm the destination disk partition. Although we wanted to use the unallocated space on our second SCSI disk, the Vista installation tool was unable to format the partition or do anything useful to the disk. However, we quickly booted back to Windows XP and used Disk Manager to delete the other primary partitions and then create and format a new one ready for the Vista installer. After this, the installation completed successfully.

Missing drivers, incompatible applications
Once Vista was up and running, however, we were disappointed to discover that there were no drivers for our Netgear WG111 USB Wi-Fi adapter nor for our Asus P4P800 motherboard’s built-in Ethernet hardware — nor indeed for our Intel E1000-series PCI network interface card. In a nutshell, bold and beautiful it may have been, but our shiny new Vista PC was unable to communicate with the outside world.

After installation, none of the system's wired or wireless Ethernet controllers worked, due to missing drivers.

And until software vendors catch up with Vista, things are unlikely to be much better when it comes to software compatibility. For example, CCH Software, which supplies a vertical business application used for accounting, said it would contact customers after April 2007 with news about when it would actually support its applications running on Vista. In the meantime, CCH suggests that you buy new computers with Windows XP installed if you plan to use them to run CCH applications. This is likely to be a common approach to Vista among software vendors.

Businesses will initially avoid Vista because the lack of driver software means that many existing systems simply will not work properly with the new operating system. To address this, Microsoft will probably include a slew of drivers in a service pack for Vista some months after the initial launch. By this time, companies will have discovered whether their mission-critical applications work properly with, and are supported on, Vista. Once businesses are satisfied on the driver and software compatibility questions, they will specify that Vista be installed on new computers that they buy.

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