Vista in the enterprise

Things move slowly in the enterprise market, so Windows Vista is currently a rare sight on the corporate desktop. But will Vista's undoubted benefits eventually unblock the upgrade path?

Microsoft reckons it has sold 40 million copies of Windows Vista, yet few enterprises will admit to buying it. So what's the story when it comes to the benefits of upgrading to Vista for larger companies? Are there, in fact, any benefits?

Vista cost Microsoft over $10 billion to develop, we're told, so you'd expect there to be something useful in it. But in the real world, plenty of enterprise users are still running Windows 2000 or even NT. There are a number of reasons for this — not least of which is the fact that hardware refresh cycles are getting longer. This means that even in forward-looking organisations, many people are just getting used to Windows XP.

Of the various flavours of Vista, Microsoft recommends Vista Enterprise is the one to go for. Its features include licensing terms that are better suited to large installations, along with improved security, lower costs and better support for mobile workers. There are also, we are told, usability gains to be had from the new Aero user interface.

Let's take a closer look.

Microsoft wants enterprise users to move onto its Software Assurance (SA) programme, which is subscription-based, rather than volume licensing which has been the traditional way of buying software. Under SA, enterprises can create their own Vista system images and send them to their hardware providers for installation before shipping the upgraded computers. By contrast, the volume licence method allows the enterprise itself to install the software on a certain number of systems.

Microsoft says Vista Enterprise can be used for free on discless workstations that boot off the network — although you'll still need licences on the central system from which they boot. Alternatively, there's the Windows Vista Enterprise Centralised Desktop (VECD) for virtual environments. This allows you to run either thick or thin clients off a virtual image installed on a server in the datacentre. VECD costs more, but it does have the advantage of centralised control.

Microsoft reckons that security — Windows XP's bugbear (at least until Service Pack 2 came along) — has been considerably enhanced in Vista.

In terms of security features, there's greater control over user accounts, so you don't need to run in administrator mode to perform routine tasks, which ought to reduce the damage caused by social engineering such as phishing. XP's Service Pack 2's security features are all there of course, along with updated Windows Firewall, Defender and the antivirus protection monitor.

Vista's disk encryption feature, using the company's BitLocker technology, helps to mitigate another — potentially high-profile — security nightmare: leaving notebooks in taxis. This has, for example, resulted in the leakage of sensitive personal data such as credit card details from a handful of financial organisations. In theory, no-one will be able to suck the data off the hard drive of a Vista-based notebook — as long as it has the requisite hardware support, namely a chip conforming to the specification of the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) version 1.2.

Vista also offers control over users accessing external storage such as USB memory sticks, which can help reduce the problem of corporate data going walkabout and being leaked.

Overall then, Microsoft has paid attention to security. But evidence of its effectiveness will be measured by the number of patches that the company releases — and patches there will be, as malware authors focus their attentions on trying to break the product.

Cost reductions
Microsoft also reckons that Vista costs less to run — assuming, of course, that you don't upgrade your system in order to take advantage of the Aero interface, which demands more processing power and memory than most enterprise desktops can deliver. To make application deployment and management simpler and more cost-effective, Vista adds controls for change management and application rollback, and for group policy management. However, these and other enhancements are only available as optional extras in the guise of the Desktop Optimisation Pack for Software Assurance. Oh yes, you need to be an SA subscriber to get the benefits.

Mobile workers
Mobile workers get benefits too, claims Microsoft. For example, the OS can help you set up guidelines for mobile workers that mandate regular communications between remote workers and their supervisors, and helps remote users stay in touch with their colleagues by setting up standard times for communication. Also, in time-honoured fashion, the Remote Desktop Connection feature gives access to back-end applications via Terminal Services.

Lots on offer?
From a corporate perspective, Vista certainly has something to offer — but it's not massively compelling, as most analysts agree. Despite that, users will be installing it at home or, most likely, receiving it preinstalled on new PCs. And increasingly, part-time or full-time teleworkers will be using their home-based PCs to connect to the office over a VPN link. So one way or another, as Gartner points out, enterprises are going to have to get used to Vista, whether they like it or not.

IT managers don't seem to be rushing to upgrade to Vista, though. Some admit they'll install it eventually, while others note that they've only just finished rolling out XP. One we spoke to said that he was evaluating Vista, and that a decision wouldn't be made until 2008. Another ruled it out, saying that the extra hardware load and retraining meant that it was not an option.

And the alternatives? Linux lurks in the background, of course, but most impartial observers agree that it's still not quite ready for mass enterprise deployment. The learning curve for Linux can be steep, although improved blade PC and virtualisation technologies could help resolve some of the technical and management issues, while Linux-savvy support staff are becoming more plentiful.

Most businesses are likely to take the Windows upgrade path eventually, though. There's a huge amount of inertia in the Windows desktop PC market and although Microsoft isn't yet ending support for XP (that'll last well into the next decade for enterprises), Vista-capable hardware will inevitably become ever more affordable.

At that point, maybe the hardware refresh after next, we could start to see Vista being deployed en masse. Or will IT managers skip Vista and wait for the next OS?



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