A subtle shift is occurring with the Windows platform today that's going to have dramatic implications for the future. We're moving from today's model of less frequent, more disruptive software updates to a friendlier model of greater frequency but fewer disruptions. We can think of this coming infrastructure as the "enterprise cloud," because it combines cloud computing paradigms (pervasive connectivity and on-the-fly updating) with the central management that enterprises have enjoyed for years.
Some Vista-era technologies are key to this migration, as are recent Microsoft technology acquisitions such as Softricity and Kidaro. And you won't have to wait for Windows 7, since that next Windows version will simply be an interim update, technologically. Let's put it this way: If the Windows Server team was responsible for Windows 7, they'd name it Windows Vista R2. But even Microsoft has been upfront about this publicly: In a recent briefing, I was told that migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7 would be no easier than migrating from XP to Vista.
To frame this discussion more generally, think about the "big bang" process of ripping out and replacing an entire infrastructure for a new Windows version. For most companies, this process is so painful that few do it all at one time, and they typically skip over entire Windows versions. Instead, they're opting to roll out new Windows versions only as hardware is updated or, in the case of Vista, completely replaced.
The reasons for this are complex and aren't just related to Windows. Several years ago, the number of application types and versions in a typical enterprise was relatively small. One might have migrated from Windows 98 to Windows 2000 by performing the following steps on individual machines: Do a manual data backup, install the OS, install a small selection of applications, then restore the data. Today, things are more complex. Not only are there far more applications installed in a typical enterprise today, but there are many more application versions out in the wild. Simply managing these applications is a nightmare. But understanding the interdependencies between these application versions and the applications and services that individual employees need is often impossible.
What's needed is a better deployment infrastructure. And, as noted previously, Microsoft has a hand in virtually every conceivable OS and application deployment and management market imaginable. You can create custom deployment .msi packages in Active Directory (AD), or perhaps manage applications with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), the successor to Systems Management Server (SMS). If you need something more sophisticated, investigate Vista, which brings its single-image deployment possibilities to the mix, along with managed desktop technologies such as Microsoft Deployment (formerly Business Desktop Deployment--BDD), Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), Softgrid, and, soon, Kidaro.
Put this all together and you see the makings of a serious infrastructure that can scale to the needs of tomorrow in ways that yesterday's deployment technologies--such as they were--simply cannot. Yes, it can be painful and potentially expensive up-front to implement, but I don't believe the move from Win2K/XP to Vista/7 will be any more painful than previous Windows migrations. And once this infrastructure is in place, you'll have the makings of the enterprise cloud: You can associate application deployments with users, ensuring that your employees have the tools they need no matter which PC they're using. In such a model, downtime because of technical issues becomes minimal.
If Microsoft is making a mistake here, it's that the company is sometimes too focused on just Vista. In its zeal to convince the world that Vista isn't a disaster, Microsoft is sometimes missing that Vista is just part of a wider ecosystem that, ultimately, will save companies time and money.
In the past such migrations were a study in the contrasts between pain/cost and benefits. So it is with the migration to Vista. But once enough of its customers have moved to these technologies, I believe Microsoft will change the way it deploys updates to you. Service packs are already becoming deemphasized, and I believe that during Vista's support life cycle we'll even see new Windows versions being delivered as a service using the more frequent, less disruptive model. These will be new Windows versions you can quickly and easily deploy yourself, or not ... from your enterprise cloud.
More on this next week: By the time you read this commentary, Microsoft's TechEd for IT Pros conference will be well underway, and I suspect we're going to be hearing a lot about software deployment issues at the show.