Opinion: Balancing the expense and expertise of XP

Windows XP is a major release that will finally unify the Microsoft Windows family under a single core of stable technologies first introduced with Windows NT.

While the economic times make a large operating-system migration difficult for many organizations, XP offers some significant benefits for IT departments, but only if they haven't transitioned to Windows 2000 and are still running aging versions of Windows 9x. With Windows 2000 having an estimated installed base of only about 10 percent, according to market research firm Gartner Inc., IT departments need to consider XP, but only as part of new machine purchases and not as upgrades.

Like the Windows 2000 predecessor on which it's based, XP Professional is more stable and reliable than any version of 9x. Many of XP's features are consumer-oriented and not needed by enterprises. But its overall robustness, combined with better tools for desktop control and management and support for mobile technologies, makes XP an attractive choice for enterprises. An organization that takes advantage of the improved desktop manageability and stability can translate that directly into lower total cost of ownership (TCO) of about 18 percent to 26 percent per year, according to Gartner Inc., making the upgrade costs from Windows 9x justifiable.

The problem is in balancing "soft" TCO savings with the "hard" dollars needed for a migration during tough economic times. As a result of the economics, many IT departments should look at ways to begin migrating to XP only as part of ongoing technology refresh cycles, instead of as large-scale migrations and upgrades of individual machines already in place.

There are other hidden costs that may also inhibit migration. Enterprises must develop some level of Windows XP expertise. This includes both staff training and application and hardware compatibility. A Windows XP support infrastructure, including people, processes, practices and tools, must be established for a successful migration to occur.

In addition, while most systems and applications that are at least a year old will work without problems under XP, all applications must be tested for compatibility, and new products must be qualified to upgrade or replace those found to be incompatible. Users should pay special attention to custom-developed applications that may not conform to Windows development standards.

Mission-critical applications such as those in a call center or line-of-business applications should be fully endorsed and supported by the software provider to run on XP. This entails costs, and while enterprises have been on notice about the shift toward NT-based technology and may have replaced older applications as part of Y2k preparations, the cost of application upgrades may inhibit many enterprises from going to XP, even as part of a technology refresh.

But given these two prerequisites, it's not only safe to deploy Windows XP for all new desktop and laptop hardware during normal refresh cycles, but the best ROI will be obtained by leveraging these cycles as well.

Windows XP represents a challenge and an opportunity for IT organizations. Much of the framework for migration decisions depends on where an organization is in terms of hardware life cycles, as well as its needs for XP stability and operating-system management tools. IT organizations that can leverage their refresh cycles will have the easiest time migrating and can take advantage of the better manageability and the resulting lower TCO. Upgrades of in-place systems are harder to justify and should be balanced carefully against both TCO and ROI.

Michael Gartenberg, former vice president and research area director at Gartner Inc., is an independent technology analyst and consultant. Contact him at michael.gartenberg@mindspring.com

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