Windows 7 migration: The business case

When considering a migration to Windows 7, you must pay close attention to the business case, including cost, technical support, hardware issues and technical enhancements

Believe what Microsoft and its resellers tell you, and every man and his dog is either migrating to Windows 7 or planning to do so in the next few months.

But is it really the automatic and obvious choice it's made out to be? Let's look at some of the business arguments for and against going down the Windows 7 route.

It's the economics, stupid
First off, there are the financial arguments. Some proponents might say that a Windows 7 migration is inevitable, and that — with a VAT increase due in January 2011 — the sooner you make the move, the better.

But should switching to Windows 7 really be taken as read? After all, there are plenty of alternatives for those prepared to try something different, such as switching to Apple Mac or even Linux, either of which might deliver a better return on the investment required. Moreover, VAT is reclaimable, making the imminent rise of negligible concern when compared to what will be a significant investment for most businesses.

Bear in mind too that time is rarely of the essence here. Desktop migration is a complicated and costly exercise, even in the smallest of companies, and shouldn't be rushed into lightly. Indeed, as with any capital investment, you'll need time not just to plan for any upgrade, but to decide whether it's really worth it in the first place. Plus, of course, you'll need to justify it to those holding the purse strings.

Happy with your lot?
There are lots of technical arguments for migrating, but it's important to stress that it's not all about the technology. Particularly in organisations that are still relatively happy with what they've got — where there may be little to gain from migration and a lot, in business terms, to be lost. You may end up better off but, equally, you could spend time and money upgrading your desktops only to end up with a solution that delivers little more than what you started with.

That, of course, is something of an over-simplification and, with careful planning, unlikely to happen. However, working out exactly how long you can get by with existing systems is far from easy. Windows XP, for example, may seem adequate for your needs now, but it is over eight years old, which is a long time in software terms. More than that, mainstream support for XP was ended by Microsoft back in 2009 — which means no more service packs and security-related fixes only, unless you're prepared to pay extra to keep it going.

Likewise, with third-party developers the focus of activity these days is very much on Windows 7, with scant attention paid to XP or even Vista support. In which case, why continue to struggle against the tide when...

... a fully supported new operating system is ready and waiting in the wings? Especially if it lives up to the technical promises made for it, in which case migrating to Windows 7 could cost less in the long run than propping up what you already have.

Doing the sums
It's important here to get your sums right, and consider everything involved before deciding whether to go for Windows 7 or not. Do you, for example, really know how many desktops you have in your organisation?

Pretty unlikely, but, even if you do, how many will need to be upgraded or replaced in order to run the new software? Similarly, how many servers, printers, routers and so on will also have to be upgraded or swapped out, and how much will that add to the cost?

Can you handle the migration in-house or will specialist help from outside be required? And what about the work involved in testing Windows 7 on your networks to find the inevitable hardware and software clashes and to work out how to deal with them? Added to which you'll have to factor in the cost of any extra tools needed to automate the migration and the cost of the downtime involved, training and so on.

It's not all one-way traffic. Migration also provides the perfect opportunity to make other changes, such as hardware or software standardisation, which can significantly reduce future costs when it comes to both management and system deployment.

One cost that should be pretty easy to calculate is that of licensing the software involved, especially in companies with Microsoft software assurance. Available to organisations with as few as five PCs, software assurance lets customers migrate to the latest Windows desktop and application software without having to pay for an upgrade. Protection worth having for those with the foresight to have invested in it.

Over the competitive edge
Finally, there are the much harder to quantify, non-financial considerations, such as what users, and the company as a whole, have to gain from a Windows 7 migration. One oft-cited benefit is that of being able to maintain a competitive edge, with Windows 7 seen as a necessary step in the continual cycle of updates and upgrades required to stay ahead of the game. But is that really the case?

Arguments for might include the enhanced performance, functionality and security offered by migrating to Windows 7. Plus it's a good opportunity to review the hardware used and get even greater benefit by switching to faster processors, adding more memory and so on. Or perhaps you want users to be more mobile and work from home or on the road — in which case a switch to Windows 7 might be a good time to consider replacing desktops with lightweight notebooks.

Unfortunately the advantages to be had from sailing close to the 'bleeding edge' of technology are no longer as easy to realise as they once were. This is partly due to accelerating commoditisation and falling prices, which make it easy to keep pace with what's going on. It is also partly because the advances themselves are no longer that radical or big.

Moreover, it could be argued that for companies seeking a competitive edge, the real action is no longer on the desktop at all, but shared back-end services, virtualisation and cloud computing. But that's another story.