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Windows 7: A First Look for IT Pros

Microsoft has just taken the wraps off the latest client operating system, Windows® 7.  The first point to note—this is a pre-beta release, and is still an early first-look. While most information out there will focus on how Windows 7 makes everyday tasks easier, with improved user experience and productivity scenarios for end users, we thought we’d focus on information specifically of interest to IT professionals.

Built on the foundation of Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista

To begin with, the core architecture of Windows 7 remains the same, as it is built on same foundation as Windows Server® 2008 and Windows Vista®.  This ensures that almost all PCs, applications and devices that are compatible with Windows Vista will retain their compatibility with Windows 7. This is important if you are evaluating or deploying Windows Vista today; there is no reason to hold off and wait for Windows 7.  In fact, investments in adopting Windows Vista (testing piloting, deploying) will pay off in a smoother transition to Windows 7 when it becomes available.

So what’s new in Windows 7?

In designing Windows 7, the engineering team had a clear focus on what we call ‘the fundamentals'—performance, application compatibility, device compatibility, reliability, security and battery life.  This effort was aided by telemetry data on how PCs are being used and issues that resulted in poor performance or disruption.  The focus on fundamentals didn’t start with Windows 7; in fact it is the continuation of the work on Windows Vista that materialized in Service Pack 1.  While the first release of Windows Vista faced challenges with hardware and application compatibility, improvements introduced in SP1 and a maturing of the ecosystem has helped alleviate these issues.

Most important to IT pros will be enhancements to manageability and security—how it impacts your day-to-day work.  Like Windows Vista, Windows 7 is engineered to make managing a PC environment more automated, controllable and efficient.  Both client operating systems bring tools and monitoring capabilities that are not available in a Windows XP environment. 

Further, Windows 7 imaging builds on the fundamental improvements made in Windows Vista, adding enumeration and driver management features. Data migration is faster and more flexible with a new ‘Hardlink’ feature, along with Offline Migration support.

Manageability

When we speak with IT pros, we usually hear about the pains you face maintaining a standard configuration and preventing end users from adding unauthorized software and hardware.  In addition, for remote laptop PCs that spend most of their time off the corporate network, administering patches and updates is challenging and unreliable.

  • In Windows Vista, the User Account Control (UAC) feature enabled more organizations to set their users to standard user mode, preventing unauthorized changes to the basic configuration.Windows Vista also added significantly more parameters that are manageable with Group Policy.
  • In Windows 7, these two technologies advance further, with a customizable UAC that can be tuned to reduce the number of elevation prompts, if that is appropriate for the environment.
  • Group Policy Preferences also extend the reach of what Group Policy can manage, and how settings are applied to specific users or computers, including non-GP aware components.
  • Updating mobile PCs that spend most of their time off the network is a particularly challenging issue for IT organizations.Windows 7 will introduce DirectAccess, a capability that allows management and updating of internet-connected remote PCs, even when they are off the corporate network.
  • For IT pros who are less than comfortable in a command-line scripting environment, the new Powershell v2 and its graphical editor help automate repetitive tasks with minimal development expertise.

Security and Compliance

Security is one of those evergreen issues in IT management, and Regulatory Compliance is becoming a greater challenge with regulation expansion around the world.  While significant advancements in PC security were made with Windows XP SP2, nefarious innovations in malware and social engineering means PCs are still prone to disruptive threats.  Additionally, implementing regulatory compliance policy—especially protecting confidential data on mobile PCs—is a particular challenge.

Windows Vista introduced an architecture model that improved security by limiting changes that could be made to the registry without administrative credentials, while providing more instances where users could be deployed in standard user mode.  UAC helped protect PCs, but in the short term it caused some disruption because applications needed to avoid performing certain tasks, such as writing to the registry or writing data to protected folders.  With SP1 a maturing ecosystem and in some cases the creative use of “shims,” most application compatibility issues have been resolved, while providing this added level of protection.

The introduction of BitLocker Drive Encryption in Windows Vista, and the extension of this protection to non-boot volumes in SP1 provided the higher degree of confidential data protection required in many industries. 

Windows 7 builds on these advancements with a customizable User Account Control that allows IT pros to “tune” the feature based on their environment; for those instances where more flexibility is granted to users, fewer elevation prompts will appear.  Conversely, in environments that require greater control over the IT infrastructure, UAC can be strengthened to minimize the changes a user can make.

For data protection, Windows 7 introduces  BitLocker ToGo™, extending encryption to removable drives.  This feature gives greater control over information leaving the corporation, as well as helping to protect lost or stolen USB drives.

Windows 7 also incorporates improvements to the Firewall Profiles and allows IT to control access to specific applications by specific users, but we’ll cover these in more detail in future articles.

Deployment

Windows Vista introduced Windows Imaging Format (WIM), allowing a hardware and language-independent image to be created and deployed.  In many instances, a single image could be deployed and maintained worldwide, providing a more predictable environment.  Several new tools, including the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, the Application Compatibility Toolkit, and Microsoft Assessment and Planning toolkit helped streamline the planning, testing and deployment of a large-scale deployment.

In Windows 7, image creation and deployment is enhanced with advances such as Dynamic Driver Provisioning, the Deployment Image Service and Management tool, Multicast Multiple Stream Transfer, and improvements to user state migration.  We’ll go into further detail in future Springboard Series articles, so check back frequently.

Summary

Windows 7 promises advancements in manageability, security, deployment and end user productivity. Does this mean you should wait or skip?  The fact is that you can get the many of the advantages today in Windows Vista. While the original release of Windows Vista ran into application and hardware compatibility issues, much progress has been made with Windows Vista SP1 and a maturing ecosystem, and this progress continues in Windows 7.

If your organization hasn’t begun looking seriously at Windows Vista, or you evaluated Windows Vista prior to SP1 and found too many challenges, it now makes sense to re-evaluate—both to benefit from more advanced PC environment, and to get ahead of the adoption curve for Windows 7.

To learn more about Windows 7, Windows Vista or any of the Windows Client technologies, please visit www.microsoft.com/springboard for the latest in information, guidance and community connections.

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© 2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. 

Microsoft, BitLocker, BitLocker ToGo, Windows, Windows Server, and Windows Vista are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

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