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Windows 7: The Time Is Now for Windows 7

Windows 8 is grabbing the headlines, but there’s still considerable value moving to Windows 7 if you haven’t yet.

Joshua Hoffman

While Windows 8 promises to be a groundbreaking evolution (the developer preview at the BUILD conference has the tech community abuzz), it’s a ways off. Fortunately for many organizations, there is still a great deal of value in migrating to Windows 7.

Many companies still use Windows XP as the primary OS. Windows XP was certainly cutting edge when it first came out, which is now more than a decade ago. In today’s computing environment, however, it often falls short of the demands of modern applications and mobile users.

If you’re using Windows XP as your primary OS, there’s still considerable value—in bottom-line cost savings, user productivity, data integrity and safety, and organizational readiness—in moving to Windows 7. There are a number of ways to help you quickly get into Windows 7, and take advantage of its value, performance and feature set.

Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit

Gaining thorough and comprehensive insight into the current state of your operating environment is an essential aspect of any deployment project. You need to understand what you have in terms of hardware, software and other assets deployed throughout your organization. Knowing this will help you identify and mitigate any potential issues in advance, which is much easier than dealing with them during deployment itself.

The Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (MAP) can help you assess your environment. Besides its comprehensive documentation and guidance, MAP includes tools for three core pre-deployment functions: inventory, compatibility analysis and readiness reporting.

MAP is a secure and agent-less tool for generating a complete computing resource inventory. By leveraging technologies already available on your network (including Windows Management Instrumentation [WMI], the Remote Registry Service, Active Directory Domain Services and the Computer Browser service), you won’t have to install MAP itself or any agents on your client machines.

Once MAP conducts its inventory, it gives you a comprehensive analysis of the assets within your organization. MAP will also help identify any issues that may pose a challenge to a smooth migration to Windows 7. MAP has rich reporting features that help you gain more detailed insights into the current state of your IT infrastructure (see Figure 1).

A Windows 7 Readiness Report in the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit

Figure 1 A Windows 7 Readiness Report in the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit.

MAP can also conduct a similar inventory and analysis for your installed software. This assessment will give you a similar level of understanding the existing state of deployed software within your organization. As with the hardware assessment, it can also help identify any issues that may pose a roadblock to successful deployment. You can find the latest version of the MAP Toolkit here.

Application Compatibility

Application compatibility is one of the more common roadblocks IT professionals encounter during a desktop deployment. Many organizations have their share of legacy applications, including those developed internally or no longer developed or supported at all. Nevertheless, these apps may still be business-critical, and must be accounted for and identified. The Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) can help you with those tasks.

The ACT helps you conduct a rationalization of your existing applications, identifying potential duplicates, conflicting versions and so on. By helping you standardize applications throughout the organization, you can reduce the number of applications you need to test prior to deployment.

After completing the rationalization process, the ACT can help you test each application for Windows 7 compatibility. This could be as simple as presenting details from the application vendor indicating whether the application is compatible. In most cases, though, you’ll be testing in-house applications. Other applications known to be incompatible with Windows 7 will require mitigation in order to work properly.

Some applications have compatibility fixes—also known as shims—to help them work properly with Windows 7. You can get a large number of previously incompatible applications to work quickly and easily using shims.

For example, there are shims to make an application believe it’s running as an administrator when it’s not or that it’s running on Windows XP when in fact it’s running on Windows 7. Check out this comprehensive guidance on using shims to mitigate application compatibility issues in “ Managing Shims in the Enterprise.

For those incompatible applications you can’t mitigate with shims or by using the ACT, you may need to employ virtualization technology. You could use something like Virtual PC to run the application in Windows XP Mode. You could also use Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) to emulate a previous version of Windows.

MED-V is part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack. This lets you to run applications within a virtual machine running an older OS. It’s completely seamless and transparent to the user. Applications appear and operate as if they were installed on the desktop, so users can even pin them to the task bar.

Virtualization Can Help

Virtualization often comes to mind as a solution for the datacenter—a way to migrate server workloads to public or private clouds. There are a number of solutions for applying virtualization technology to the desktop as well. Desktop virtualization solutions can be broken down into three primary categories: User State Virtualization, Application Virtualization and Operating System Virtualization.

User State Virtualization (USV) has features like Roaming Profiles and Folder Redirection. This helps you ensure that all user data is securely stored on centralized servers. This helps you back up and protect that data. USV gives your users the convenience of being able to access their data from any corporate workstation. If a user receives a new machine, or even if they’re traveling to another office within the organization, their personalized settings and data will be available seamlessly.

Application Virtualization solutions like Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V) let you host applications on a centralized infrastructure. This gives your users dynamic access on any authorized PC from anywhere. Using App-V helps deploy virtualized applications faster. It also helps you more easily manage and maintain those apps, while minimizing conflicts with locally installed applications.

Finally, there’s Operating System Virtualization, which is available through Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) or Remote Desktop Services (RDS) solutions. This gives your users remote access to on-demand PC functionality, along with their data and settings. You can centrally manage and update virtualized desktops. You can also make them available to users from any location. This provides a predictable, secure computing environment without the need to manage and maintain additional hardware.

Prior to undertaking your own Windows 7 deployment, consider evaluating available desktop virtualization solutions. See the Desktop Virtualization TechCenter for more information as you plan your Windows 7 deployment strategy.

Prepare Your Infrastructure

There are a number of new features in Windows 7 that will help you take advantage of major improvements in the datacenter infrastructure technology available in Windows Server 2008 R2. DirectAccess is one such feature.

DirectAccess lets your remote users securely access shared resources, Web sites and applications on an internal network without connecting to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It establishes bidirectional connectivity with an internal network every time a DirectAccess-enabled computer is connected to the Internet. Your remote users never have to think about connecting to the internal network, and you can manage remote computers outside the office, even when they’re not connected to the VPN.

However, using DirectAccess does require some infrastructure planning prior to deploying Windows 7 clients. There are a number of different DirectAccess designs available that let you control the degree of Intranet access available to your users. Start by reading the DirectAccess Design Guide, which will help you select the DirectAccess design that best suits your organization.

Once you’ve chosen a design, move on to the DirectAccess Deployment Guide, which will guide you through the preparation and deployment of a DirectAccess server. It will also help with other supporting infrastructure components, like the Network Location Server and Certificate Revocation List (CRL) distribution points. The DirectAccess Deployment Guide will walk you through preparing client computers for DirectAccess, as well as help you integrate DirectAccess with Network Access Protection (which can help you ensure that all client computers connecting to your network meet minimum standards for updates, security configurations and so on.)

Dynamic Driver Provisioning

Managing device drivers has long been a challenge when it comes to any desktop deployment. In the past, you had to ensure that all your desktop images included all necessary drivers. You also had to minimize driver conflicts and keep your image size under control.

With Dynamic Driver Provisioning in Windows 7, you can reduce the size of your images and the number of images you need to maintain. You won’t need to update any images when you introduce new hardware into your environment.

You can centrally store your drivers on deployment servers so you can install them dynamically or assign sets of drivers based on BIOS information. If you install drivers dynamically, Windows 7 enumerates Plug-and-Play devices during installation. It will then choose drivers based on the Plug-and-Play IDs of the actual devices on the computer.

Reducing the amount of drivers on individual computers reduces the amount of potential driver conflicts. This ultimately streamlines installation and setup times. It also improves client computer reliability. For more on driver management with Windows 7, see  Managing and Deploying Driver Packages.

Continuing Education

Anyone getting ready to deploy Windows 7 should read Bill Boswell’s article, “ The 10 Things to Do First for Windows 7.” This includes a number of great tips. There is one in particular that may not occur to you—but could be tremendously useful: Learn Windows PowerShell.

Both Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 include Windows PowerShell. It’s enabled by default. There are a plethora of administrative commands accessible and scriptable via Windows PowerShell. As you take on a Windows 7 deployment, Windows PowerShell can be an indispensible asset. It can help you automate and manage a variety of deployment tasks.

To get started, check out the Windows PowerShell Owner’s Manual. This comprehensive reference guide will help you with writing, running, and customizing Windows PowerShell commands and scripts. Also look at the Getting Started with Windows PowerShell series. One final resource worth mentioning is the Windows 7 Deployment TechCenter.

The fact that Windows 8 is on the horizon shouldn’t stop you from deploying Windows 7 today. There are dramatic improvements in security, networking, performance and user productivity that can deliver immediate value to your business.

Joshua Hoffman
Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of ResearchAccess.com, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.

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