Let me start by saying I'm an open source enthusiast waiting for the day I can finally deploy an open source desktop standard in the enterprise. That day may come once legacy Windows applications are moved to Web-based alternatives, but, in the meantime, I am forced to continue to deploy Windows to support line-of-business applications. I'm not alone in feeling like we are at a crossroads since the release of Windows 8--many organizations have avoided it. But is this decision justified or just a reaction to the “broken” Windows Start screen?
Windows 8 has certainly been one of the most controversial launches of a Microsoft operating system since Windows Vista. The reviews have really only focused on the tablet-inspired user interface design and lack of available applications in the app store. This negative feedback on the appearance of Windows 8 has led most enterprises to prematurely take a pass on upgrading, especially those that were burned by the initial instability and compatibility of Windows Vista. However, the fact is that Windows 8 actually offers many improvements over Windows 7, including security, speed, manageability and stability.
Speedier Boot Times, Less Hardware
The first thing any user will notice when using Windows 8 is the improved boot times. Windows 8 uses a technique to hibernate the core operating system on shutdown. This allows the system to boot much more quickly after the initial boot because it is only reviving a key portion of the operating system instead of reloading it into memory. Microsoft reports that they have seen boot times lowered by as much as 70%, which my experience has confirmed. When paired with an SSD and UEFI BIOS, I have seen boot times as low as 8 seconds.
Enterprises will benefit from this new boot speed not just in user satisfaction, but also in applying security updates. Users who avoided rebooting after security updates with Windows XP are more likely to reboot with Windows 8, as it has less of an effect on their productivity.
Windows 8 is the first version of Windows that actually requires less hardware than previous versions. Enterprises looking to extend the useful life of their PC inventory will find this a welcome surprise. The memory footprint is smaller than Windows 7, so even machines with 2 Gbytes may still be usable.
Microsoft also redesigned the display to run through its DirectX gaming architecture. This dramatically increases the response time of video elements on the screen and makes an old machine just feel faster. The netbooks that chugged along under Windows 7 are actually useable under Windows 8. Enterprises can keep old hardware in service longer and reduce the continual hardware upgrade expense cycle.
Another cost-saving feature of Windows 8 also improves security capabilities: the inclusion of BitLocker in Windows 8 Professional. This full-disk encryption capability previously was only available with Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate, which required an expensive enterprise agreement with Microsoft or an expensive retail upgrade. Many enterprises that required full-disk encryption moved to third-party disk encryption because it was cheaper.
[Microsoft continues to up its game on the security front. Read how the company recently changed its position on bug bounties for security researchers who find vulnerabilities in its software in "Microsoft Offers Up to $100,000 For Bugs."]
Microsoft also has added new features to BitLocker in Windows 8. Enterprises will benefit most from the new feature that allows the initial encryption pass to only encrypt space in use, which dramatically reduces the amount of time required to deploy Windows 8 PCs from several hours to under an hour in most cases. In addition, BitLocker had previously allowed key escrow in Active Directory, but now it also allows users to boot with this stored key when attached to the company network. This provides a transparent user experience that increases user productivity, which is beneficial to any enterprise deploying full-disk encryption.
Login Lag, Application Compatibility
There are some challenges that enterprises will face in deploying Windows 8, although they are manageable. For example, it takes several minutes for users to get a desktop on their first login, which can be a problem with shared machines in the company. This issue only occurs on the first login, but can be frustrating for users waiting to work.
Application compatibility is similar to Windows 7, but enterprises may face challenges with software that utilizes Internet Explorer as a Web browser or as an internal HTML renderer. That’s because IE 10, included with Windows 8, has security features that can interfere with legacy software because of session handling and outdated ActiveX controls. Windows 8 Pro does include the client version of Hyper-V, which can be used to run older versions of Windows virtually to support this legacy software. However, this may not be the ideal solution as it adds substantially to client hardware requirements.
The new “modern” interface in Windows 8 does cause confusion with users, in my experience. The schizophrenic switching between a tablet and desktop is more than most users will tolerate. There are several workarounds that can address this issue by adding back the familiar Start menu and allowing users to boot directly to their desktop. These include open source products such as Classic Shell, as well as commercial products like Stardock’s Start8, which costs $5. These simple tweaks can be integrated with Group Policy for enterprise management and eliminate any additional user training for Windows 8 deployment.
Windows 8.1,scheduled for release in October, adds back the famous Start button but does not add back the Start menu. It includes some very compelling features for enterprises, including support for BYOD such as remote wipe of business data and the ability to provide granular access to Active Directory. Other new enterprise security features include automatic VPN connections and network behavior monitoring.
I'm impressed that Microsoft took such dramatic risks with Windows 8. I'm no different than others in finding some of these risks more successful than others--especially the user interface. But underneath this confusing assortment of colored boxes, Windows 8 offers technical improvements that make it appealing for enterprise deployment. Windows 8.1 offers even more improvements for enterprises, but the user interface will still be an issue that needs to be addressed before adoption. I guess this makes Windows 8/8.1 the ugly duckling of operating systems.
Are you facing BYOD challenges in your organization? Check out "Breaking Through the FUD – 10 Steps to Secure BYOD ” at Interop New York this October.
Joseph Granneman has more than 20 years of technology experience, primarily focused in health care information technology. He is CIO for Rockford Orthopedic Associates in Rockford, Ill., and an active independent author, presenter and professor in the health care information ... View Full Bio