Windows Vista in the Enterprise

I seem to have a habit of getting into trouble with Microsoft. My latest surprise was a long-overdue (if somewhat cursory) examination of the ways in which the company has failed to live up to its promises for Windows Vista, the next generation Windows version the company hopes to complete late this year. Posted as part of my Windows Vista February CTP/Build 5342 review on the SuperSite for Windows, Where Vista Fails is harsh but, I think, accurate. What I didn't address in this article, however, are Vista's enterprise features. Will this OS offer a compelling upgrade for business customers?

The answer is complex. Windows Vista is a major Windows update with a plethora of new features. Many of them will require retraining both for business users and IT administrators, and Microsoft--as it often does in new Windows versions--had inexplicably chosen to move or rename common features throughout Vista. Rather than offer you a laundry list of Vista features, I'd like to touch on the three top issues that this release will raise. Some are good, some are bad, but mostly each is a mixed bag.

Security

Windows Vista has been thoroughly overhauled from a security standpoint. Consider the security changes Microsoft made in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) and multiply that by about 100, and you'll be in the right place to understand how big this is. The single most obvious security change is User Account Protection (UAP), which provides Windows with the sort of security protection that Linux/UNIX and Mac OS X have enjoyed for years. Under this system, all users, even administrator-level users, run with reduced privileges at all times. Any time you want to make a potentially dangerous change to the system, UAP pops up an authorization dialog that forces you to provide admin-level privileges in order to complete the action.

The dark side of UAP is that the dialogs pop-up far too often. In fact, for certain seemingly innocuous actions, such as deleting shortcuts and other icons from the desktop, you might be surprised by how many dialogs you need to wade through. Microsoft tells me its working to make this less painful, but my guess is that users will find UAP to be a major annoyance.

Deployment

As we've discussed here previously, Windows Vista introduces a disk image-based deployment scheme that offers two huge advantages over today's deployment tools. First, disk images are easy to build and maintain, and can be quickly deployed to desktops. Second, Vista's disk images can be edited live. This means you can add (or remove) features from an image, including new hot-fixes and service packs. Because Windows Vista is far more modularized than previous Windows versions, it's also easier to create custom disk images, including those that vary only in the languages used. This will be a huge boon to multinational companies. Unattend files are now-XML based. What this all adds up to is big improvements, albeit with a high learning curve.

Hardware and Software Compatibility

While there have been many negative stories about Vista requiring incredible high-end hardware in order to get the best visual experience (what Microsoft calls Aero Glass, where application windows in Vista take on a translucent look), the truth is most modern PCs should have no problem running Windows Vista. The bigger issue is compatibility. Many hardware devices won't work natively in Windows Vista, and some applications are going to have issues, though Vista's XP compatibility layer is decent and works similarly to the Application Compatibility feature in XP.

Underlying all of these changes, of course, is the fact that each will require a significant investment of time and effort on the part of any organization that chooses to migrate to Vista. For starters, there will be two Vista editions aimed squarely at businesses--Vista Business, which targets businesses of all sizes, including small businesses, and Vista Enterprise, which is aimed at managed environments and adds features such as Virtual PC Express and Services for Unix Applications. Vista Enterprise will only be made available via volume licensing customers with Software Assurance (SA).

These issues only touch the surface of the differences you can expect in Windows Vista, and over the coming months, we'll be examining this operating system much more closely. If your job is to support or migrate desktops, it's time to begin investigating Windows Vista, even if you don't intend to rollout Vista for quite some time. If you're not part of a program that provides you with access to prerelease Vista versions, fear not. In late May, Microsoft will ship Beta 2, and the intention is to make it widely available to the public.

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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