Business as usual for enterprise migrations to Windows 10

The new OS may sport a new servicing model -- constant updates and changes -- but companies will upgrade the way they've always done, analysts say

windows 10 hands on start menu
Mark Hachman

Windows 10 may be a radical change from its predecessors, maybe even the last version of the OS, but for enterprises planning to migrate to the new operating system, it will be the same old, same old, analysts said today.

"Business as usual," said Al Gillen of IDC in an interview when asked how corporations will approach Windows 10.

The experts' consensus was that Microsoft's major customers would treat Windows 10 much like they have previous upgrades -- such as Windows XP to Windows 7, the last major move by most -- rather than accelerate the process and jump on the new OS faster than they have others.

While Microsoft doesn't have the leverage with enterprises that it does with consumers and small businesses -- whose current Windows 7 and 8.1 devices are eligible for a free upgrade under a one-year time limit -- the Redmond, Wash., company has urged corporations to move quickly.

"We encourage businesses to start evaluating, piloting and deploying Windows 10 today," said Jim Alkove, director of program management for Microsoft's enterprise group, on a company blog Wednesday.

Gartner's Windows 10 timeline Gartner

Because Microsoft will continually evolve Windows 10, corporate customers have to decide when it's "ready" enough for them to deploy, says Gartner.

Terry Myerson, the top Windows executive at Microsoft, said the same thing yesterday in a separate post, but also prompted smaller shops -- which may be running Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8.1 Pro, SKUs that do qualify for the free upgrade -- to hustle.

"We encourage small businesses to take advantage of the free upgrade offer to Windows 10 from genuine Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 PCs and tablets," Myerson said.

Larger organizations typically license Windows Enterprise, an edition not offered at retail, and support it with a Software Assurance (SA) agreement that provides for free upgrades to new versions. As long as they continue paying for SA, companies running Windows Vista, 7, 8 or 8.1 Enterprise can upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise at their discretion and pace.

Without a one-year clock ticking in their ears, that's exactly what enterprises will do.

"They can move to Windows 10 whenever," Gillen said. "They're not going to rush into it."

Some analysts acknowledged that the shift to Windows 10 will be a bit quicker than migrations that occurred with Windows 8. "I do think it will be slightly faster than Windows 8," said David Johnson of Forrester.

But the better comparison will be between Windows 10 and Windows 7, the last successful OS from Microsoft and the one now powering the majority of corporate PCs (and the world's too, with a 67% share of all Windows PCs).

There, the experts expect little if any difference: Companies will repeat their usual practice of first planning and preparing for the migration. Next, they will run pilot programs with small numbers of machines, followed by accepting new PCs with Windows 10 -- essentially starting the go-to-10 process through attrition. Finally, they will begin organization-wide upgrades of existing devices. Their completion target: Late 2019.

"Most customers could do small pilots over the next 6-9 months [with Windows 10], but real production roll-outs still take time and planning and have a lot of moving parts to coordinate," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner, in an email. "You don't rush into that, and as such we are recommending customers take 2016 to plan and prepare and look to late 2016 or early 2017 as the start of broad production deployments."

Both Gillen of IDC and Smith of Forrester agreed, saying that the majority of Microsoft's business customers won't seriously begin shifting to Windows 10 until two to three years from now.

While migration timing won't appreciably speed up, the analysts contended that the process itself would accelerate and the time required to complete the migration would shorten.

"Some of the complexity is gone, and this should be an easier migration" than the one from XP to Windows 7, said Johnson, who spotlighted application compatibility as a major reason for a smoother move. "Fewer apps will need to be remediated," he added.

Gillen echoed Johnson. "The upgrade will be a lot less problematic," Gillen said. "There aren't the application compatibility issues that people ran into moving from Windows XP to Windows 7. And the upgrade process in Windows 10 is a lot less destructive."

For all Microsoft's prodding of businesses to quickly adopt Windows 10 -- driven by its goal of getting a billion devices on the new OS within three years -- the real deadline for enterprises is Jan. 14, 2020, the last day that Microsoft will provide security patches for Windows 7.

"In a couple of years, the pressure to upgrade will start to increase," said Gillen, referring to the 2020 deadline. "But between now and then, there's not really any."

"Businesses do need to keep in mind that Windows 7 leaves extended support in January 2020," said Kleynhans. "[But] the timetable should be set by the customer based on their business needs, not on Microsoft's timetable."

Enterprises, in other words, should essentially tell Microsoft, "Don't rush us."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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