Enterprises: Now's the Time to Get Your Windows 8 On!

There’s a myth making its way across the Interwebs that Windows 8 isn’t for businesses, and that Microsoft has suddenly abandoned its core markets to make a bid for the hipster iCrowd. OK, it’s not totally a myth: Microsoft is desperate to appeal to the younger, trendier folks who are currently lapping up Apple and Google products in record numbers. But make no mistake, Windows 8 is for businesses, too. And if you support an enterprise workforce, the time to start evaluating this next Windows version is now.

You might know that Microsoft released Windows 8 to manufacturing on August 1. At that time, Microsoft announced a rolling release cycle where various customers would get access to the software bits ahead of general availability, which occurs October 26, 2012. Last week, MSDN and TechNet subscribers, Software Assurance (SA) customers, and Microsoft Partner Network members gained access to the various Windows 8 versions. This week, Microsoft Action Pack Solution Providers received access to Windows 8. And on September 1, Volume License customers without SA will be able to purchase Windows 8 through Microsoft Volume Licensing resellers.

There are three Windows 8 product editions, and your access to them now will depend largely on which customer type you are. The base version called Windows 8 (or, internally, Windows 8 Core) is analogous to Windows XP Home but offers the majority of Windows 8 features. Step up to Windows 8 Pro and you gain business features such as domain join, BitLocker and BitLocker To Go, Encrypting File System (EFS), Boot from VHD, Client Hyper-V, Group Policy support, and Remote Desktop host. (Pro will also let you purchase and install Windows Media Center for an as-yet-undisclosed nominal fee.)

Windows 8 Enterprise is the full meal deal—there’s no Ultimate edition this time around—but is only available to Volume License customers. It's a superset of Windows 8 Pro and adds Windows To Go, Metro-style app deployment tools and functionality, DirectAccess (VPN alternative), BranchCache (for saving bandwidth in branch offices over slow WANs), AppLocker (whitelist and blacklist capabilities for files and applications), various VDI improvements, and more.

You’re going to want to look at the Enterprise edition if possible. If you don’t qualify under one of the aforementioned plans, Microsoft is making a non-upgradable, 90-day evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise available to one and all via its TechNet Evaluation Center website.

I’ve written a lot about Windows 8 business features in the past. For a refresher, I recommend checking out "Making The Business Case For Windows 8." But the one big functional addition in the RTM code is Windows To Go. I’ll be writing up a longer overview of Windows To Go soon on the SuperSite for Windows, but I’ve been using this intriguing solution for the past several days and it’s pretty impressive. Basically, you can use a built-in control panel to install Windows 8 to a compatible USB device. (Only two are currently supported, for performance and reliability reasons.) Then, you can configure the PC to automatically boot or not when a W2G device is detected. W2G provides a complete Windows 8 Enterprise environment on a USB stick that can be protected with BitLocker (with boot-time password entry), ensuring that any data contained within is safe. And because it uses all the hardware of the PC it's plugged into (aside from the hard drive), it boots and runs almost exactly as fast as the PC would otherwise.

There’s just one difference, of course: W2G is self-contained. If you lose the disk, no problem, the data is safe. It’s a perfect solution for temporary workers, super-portable traveling, and lab environments of all kinds. You can literally take your complete Windows environment with you, in your pocket. Find a PC and you’re up and running, no matter where you are.

In addition to the features built into Windows 8, there are a few more things to consider from any enterprise perspective.

First, and most important, Windows 8 is part of a family of new Windows products that also includes Windows RT, which is properly thought of as an ARM-based version of Windows 8. Windows RT is roughly analogous to Windows 8 Core, with a few additions and subtractions. On the additions side, RT picks up always-on, full-disk encryption (BitLocker-based but not centrally managed through Active Directory/Group Policy). On the subtractions side, RT lacks Windows Media Player and Storage Spaces, and it can't install any existing desktop Windows applications. (It does, however, come with most Windows 8 desktop applications aside from what’s mentioned above, and it comes with a preview version of Office 2013 Home and Student, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.)

Windows RT is Microsoft’s answer to the iPad, and like similar Apple and Google mobile products, it will be managed largely through Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). Mysteriously, Microsoft has also announced a separate, RT-specific management solution for enterprises that we might consider a technological halfway house between EAS and AD/Group Policy. That is, RT will be more manageable than iPads or Android tablets and will be more familiar to users thanks to its Windows DNA and familial similarity with Windows 8.

Unfortunately, there’s no way for an enterprise to evaluate Windows RT yet. But I would keep my eye on this, because it will almost certainly provide a win-win for you and your users: A system that's as cool as any iPad but is far more manageable.

Also, be sure to check out Stephen Rose’s excellent post "Windows 8 Is Ready For Your Enterprise." It provides links to the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK, the new version of the Windows 7 WAIK), the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012 Update 1 (MDT), and the Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit 7.0, and it has some good information about activation, which includes the previous methods—Key Management Service (KMS) and Multiple Activation Key (MAK)—as well as a new AD-based activation method.

Although conventional wisdom suggests that businesses will standardize on Windows 7 for the next several years, I think that businesses will in fact mix and match between Windows 7 and Windows 8. And there's lots to recommend on the Windows 8 side. Users will want the new features, the Metro environment, and touch-based Windows 8 and RT devices. And enterprises will benefit from all the advances in Windows 8, including the vastly faster boot and recovery times, the improved security and reliability, and the management changes, especially with Windows RT.

Don’t succumb to a knee-jerk reaction to Windows 8. Check it out for yourself first.
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