Why, when and how to migrate to Windows 8

Windows 8 machines are coming out sometime this fall, but that doesn't mean businesses should shift to panic mode to upgrade their corporate desktops and laptops, experts say.

While the new operating system offers significant new features compared to previous Microsoft upgrades, none is so compelling that it overrides practical business factors, they say.

The platform does have a lot to recommend it, says Nick Govelovich, a systems analyst on the IT enterprise computing team at PolyOne Corp., an international plastics manufacturer based in Avon Lake, Ohio. For example, Windows 8 boots quickly, takes less time to create a PC image than Windows 7 and its Metro touch-based user interface has interesting possibilities for devices used on factory floors or at human resources kiosks, he says.

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But like a lot of other businesses, PolyOne is still in the middle of transitioning from Windows XP to Windows 7, hoping to get that done in time to beat the April 8, 2014, end of support for XP. "The general feeling is we just did all this work to move to Windows 7," he says. "Why would we do it all over again to move to Windows 8 in a year?"

That's a good question, says Gartner analyst Michael Silver. Organizations that go through an OS transition suffer what he calls migration fatigue and don't want to face another one soon, so the answer is to wait.

There are other reasons to hold off as well, he says. Windows 8 will probably be generally released sometime this fall, which means it won't be ready for widespread corporate deployment for 18 months or so, Silver says. That means a realistic start date of early 2014 -- too close to the expiration of XP support. "There's not enough runway there until you run into the deadline," he says. "You need to focus on getting XP out."

Waiting also gives more time for Windows 8 to establish itself as a stable platform and to prove its benefits in real world corporate networks, says Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT at GHY International, a customs brokerage in Winnipeg, Canada. The company just finished its switch-over to Windows 7 last fall and only undertook the project because of the looming support deadline, not because it had problems with the XP operating system.

While going to Windows 7 caused a spike in help desk calls initially, most of them were about how to use features that were new compared to XP, not because of desktop problems that needed fixing. After about five months, that spike has slacked off and now help desk calls are 80% fewer than they were with XP, he says.

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The goal for him is to have a stable desktop that doesn't require a lot of IT effort to maintain and that users can operate without ongoing education. That's what he has now after migrating to Windows 7, and Windows 8 won't be attractive until it's equally reliable. "I don't want to deal with it for years and years if I can help it," he says.

But there are cases when it makes sense to move to Windows 8 earlier rather than later, says Silver: if there is a significant need to do tablet computing and support Windows at the same time. Windows 8 with its touch interface can run on machines that have both tablet and laptop capabilities, answering the need for tablets and full PCs in a single device. "It's a benefit if you can buy just a PC and not an iPad and a PC," he says.

While iPads are becoming more welcome in corporate networks as BYOD policies broaden, the still don't fit in well with the management and security infrastructure of Windows shops, he says.

A business where more than half of devices are tablets are good candidates for early Windows 8 adoption, he says. Even businesses with a lower percentage might want to bring in Windows 8 tablets if it's been awhile since they moved to Windows 7. They may have gotten over their migration fatigue and be ready for the work involved, he says.

Well established Windows 7 shops might also consider shifting to Windows 8 as they refresh desktops and laptops. A wild card in this mix is how well Windows 8 tablets do in the consumer market, which is something Microsoft is clearly hoping for, Silver says. If they become popular, they may start showing up at work as part of the consumerization of IT trend. Then, depending on the scope of their popularity and whether higher-ups in the business want them, IT may be forced into accommodating Windows 8 earlier than they would otherwise.

In the meantime, businesses should be looking ahead to what impact Windows 8 will have on other network infrastructure, particularly security, management and applications, Silver says.

Desktop hardware should be inventoried and assessed to make sure it can handle the new operating system. When the time does come, it may make sense to tie Windows 8 upgrades to hardware refreshes if a transition from XP to Windows 7 is any indication, says GHY's Fortlage.

In the midst of upgrading, he did the math and found out it was at least break-even or $100 cheaper to buy new Windows 7 desktops from Acer than it was to deal with the hardware problem on old Windows XP machines that actually exceeded Windows 7 specifications. The problem was their age and the likelihood of them needing repairs, Fortlage says.

Management and security software that will be deployed on the machines needs to be checked for compatibility with Windows 8 as well, Silver says.

Microsoft says that applications that run on Windows 7 will also run on Windows 8, but businesses should check with individual application vendors about whether that is true and what their plans are for future development for Windows 8, he says.

There are workarounds, such as running incompatible apps in virtual machines, but such kludgy options should be minimized and alternatives should be sought.

Planning for Windows 8 should extend beyond Windows 8, Silver says. It's possible that Windows 7 will serve well enough, especially if there is no need for the Windows 8 Metro interface, Silver says. Running the operating system on a traditional PC is not so beneficial that it warrants the effort to change.

"If you just finished a Windows 7 migration and if you're not looking at touch, you might skip Windows 8," he says. Those just starting to deploy Windows 7 stand the best chance of skipping, because he expects Windows 9, or whatever the next version is called, will likely be coming out in two years. "By the time they are done getting XP out and look around, they'll see the beta for Windows 9," he says.

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