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Windows 7 Deployment: Application Compatibility

Windows 7 Deployment:
Application Compatibility

I was amused to read last week that microprocessor giant Intel was running into some trouble with its ongoing Windows 7 migration. Well, maybe "trouble" isn't the right word for it. In fact, what Intel is experiencing is no different than what other large enterprises will experience when moving from Windows XP to 7.

Intel, in case you don't recall, had previously (and infamously) decided to ignore Windows Vista and stick with Windows XP at a time when Microsoft really could have used some PR help from its longtime partner. But with Windows 7 achieving better performance, interesting new features, and perceived compatibility improvements (it's actually virtually identical to Windows Vista with SP1), Intel decided to take the plunge.

The coincidental timing of the Intel blog post that described the issues they were having was also interesting. I'm working with Dell on a two-part Windows 7 deployment webinar that's aimed at the company's largest customers. (The first part appeared last week while part two is scheduled for next week.) And, as I noted above, the issues Intel raised are very common across the customers with which both I and various Dell representatives have spoken.

[ Read the Intel blog post describing its Windows 7 migration. ]

So if you're just now starting the planning phases of a Windows 7 deployment, or haven't yet begun, there are a few things to consider. And one of the biggest problems you'll run into, as did Intel, is application compatibility issues.

This is a much more diverse and problematic area than you might imagine. Yes, you'll need to remediate 16-bit applications. (And, even more commonly, 16-bit installers for 32-bit applications, as Intel found.) Yes, Windows 7 includes built-in application compatibility shims for many commercial 32-bit applications that aren't inherently compatible. And yes, you can choose from a growing array of application virtualization solutions--Microsoft itself makes several--to go the final mile.

But sadly, that's just the beginning. Many XP-era applications assume they're running with admin privileges because that's how all legacy (i.e. pre-XP SP2) applications worked. That's no longer the case, and thanks to Windows 7 technologies like User Account Control (UAC) and lowered runtime privilege levels for admin-type accounts, these applications aren't going to work properly in the modern world.

Then, there's that darned browser. Many enterprises have standardized on IE 6, and with that standardization came a wellspring of web sites and applications that just aren't compatible with modern web standards or newer web browsers. But Windows 7 comes with IE 8, and while it (like Windows 7 itself) has some interesting backwards-compatibility modes, they're not going to do the trick for many sites, both internal and external. It's time to test, fix, and, when all fails, look to virtualization for those mission critical solutions that simply can't work with newer browsers.

One interesting trend with Windows 7 is that, for the first time ever, 64-bit versions of the OS are outselling 32-bit versions, and by a wide margin. I wouldn't have expected this to be much of an issue in and of itself, and in fact recommend 64-bit systems over 32-bit but according to Intel, there are a few things to consider here. Key here, again, is legacy applications. Older applications can be hard-coded to look for information in the Program Files directory structure, but 32-bit apps are installed in the Program Files (x86) folder structure on 64-bit versions of Windows 7.

Looking ahead, I'll touch back on the subject of Windows 7 deployment issues from time to time and highlight some other top concerns. But I wouldn't recommend focusing too much on the negative. Given XP's lengthy lifetime, it's been a long time since most businesses--especially larger businesses--did a major OS migration. But this is overdue, and Windows 7 does come with some serious ROI advantages as well. Intel says it will reduce operating costs by $11 million over the next three years using Windows 7. And according to a Microsoft study, most businesses will recoup the cost of a Windows 7 deployment within 18 months. Those kinds of savings, coupled with the advantages of leaving legacy technologies behind and simplifying your infrastructure make Windows 7 a no-brainer, I think.

An edited version of this commentary appeared in the March 2, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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