What to expect from Windows 10 migrations

Process changes spurred by Windows 10 servicing model will test IT more than tech-related migration issues.

Enterprise adoption of Windows 10 is moving at a faster clip than previous operating-system updates as companies shrink the typical time frame allotted for planning, budgeting, testing and deployment of a new OS.

“We’re running close to a year ahead of what we would have expected, and what we saw with Windows 7 five or six years ago,” says Stephen Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner.

Early pilots are proceeding smoothly, but industry watchers warn that Microsoft’s more frequent release model for upgrades and updates will pose the biggest challenge for enterprise IT departments. A scarcity of experienced Windows 10 talent is another potential issue; enterprises for the most part are relying on in-house IT teams to run pilot projects in preparation for broader deployments. On the applications front, many commercial software makers are moving more slowly to ensure their products support Windows 10 than enterprise are to adopt it, which raises potential compatibility issues for early adopters.

Despite these hurdles, enterprise reaction to Windows 10 has been favorable so far. "It's quite surprising how positively they’ve responded, particularly given that there are so many other things around the PC that aren’t very positive,” Kleynhans says.

Nor have potential hiccups caused enterprises to stall deployment plans. Migrations to Windows 10 are expected to outpace all previous Microsoft OS updates, Gartner reports. The research firm predicts that 50% of enterprises will have started Windows 10 deployments by January 2017, with an eye to completing companywide migrations by 2019.

Why so fast?

One reason for the aggressive timeline is the relative failure of Windows 8 to attract corporate users. Enterprises generally weren’t interested in the Windows 8 operating system, but they found the devices introduced with Windows 8, such as tablets and two-in-one convertible devices with detachable or pivoting screens, quite compelling, Kleynhans says.

"IT generally was interested and intrigued by those devices and saw them as something they wanted to roll out. But the realities of the early hardware and the realities of Windows 8 tended to keep those projects from going anywhere," Kleynhans says.

Those shelved projects are now coming back. "They're moving very quickly to take these stalled Windows 8 projects -- which aren’t huge, but they're significant and typically fairly high profile -- and move them forward onto Windows 10."

The lifespan of Windows 7 is another reason for speedy deployment. Windows 7 support ends in January 2020, and companies want to be ahead of the curve. While January of 2020 may seem like a long way off, so did XP’s expiration date. "April of 2014 sounded like a long time away for people on XP, and it suddenly arrived and they weren’t anywhere near ready. Nobody wants to repeat that mistake," Kleynhans says.

Some new features, too, are attracting enterprises.

"Most businesses have seen that there are some benefits of moving onto Windows 10,” says Chris Porter, director of sales and professional services at Camwood, a London-based firm that specializes in application management. For starters, Windows 10 offers a better user experience and improved handling of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices than Windows 7 or Windows 8. "Windows 10 works much better across the fixed and mobile platforms,” Porter says.

It's very promising, says Deepak Kumar, founder and CTO of Adaptiva. "Even the beta builds of Windows 10, I think, were higher quality and noticeably faster than Windows 7. That's very exciting to those of us who are on it, as engineers. But does that translate into businesses adopting Windows 10?”

Bellevue, Wash.-based Adaptiva, which specializes in systems management for Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), surveyed companies to find out just how serious they are about adopting Windows 10 and found 63% of respondents expect to run Windows 10 on a significant number of systems this year.

“The answer is very loud and clear: We have never seen such rapid deployment of any operating system before," Kumar says.

Making the move

Enterprises for the most part are finding fewer problems upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows 8 to Windows 10 than they did moving from Windows XP to Windows 7. According to Kleynhans, the feedback Gartner hears most often is that companies are surprised how few issues they’ve run into. “Most people go into this comparing it to what they did when they went from XP to Windows 7,” he says. “That was pretty painful. This is turning out to be relatively straightforward." 

There aren’t too many architectural changes between Windows 7 and Windows 10, he adds. Microsoft tightened security and added some new features, but "they're not the kind of changes that tend to break things. We're finding that compatibility is very strong moving from Windows 7 to Windows 10,” Kleynhans says.

That’s not to say there won’t be challenges. "Generally speaking, there are less issues than there were moving off XP," Camwood’s Porter says. "It's a slightly easier process, but of course there are still issues and challenges that large corporations need to look out for."

Application compatibility is one of them.

"Most companies will probably have an application somewhere that’s important to them that either doesn’t work or isn’t supported,” Kleynhans says. Compatibility problems can be identified and fixed, but if an application isn't supported, enterprises have to decide what’s important, he says. "You have to make a decision: Are you willing to go ahead running something that might work but isn’t supported, or do you have to spend money to upgrade or do what's necessary to get to something that's supported?"

Likewise, Camwood so far has found with its clients that many core, off-the-shelf applications are working well without requiring much remediation. That’s put some ISVs in waiting mode. After spending a lot of time and money to redevelop their applications for Windows 7 or Windows 8, many aren’t expecting to have to do so for Windows 10, Porter says. They’re waiting to hear from customers, who effectively are testing the applications for the ISVs. "That's definitely a change," Porter says.

With XP, enterprises typically reviewed and tested all their applications to make sure they would work on a new OS. But they’re taking a very different approach with the Windows 10 OS migration, Porter says. Many enterprises are using pilot Windows 10 projects to unearth potential compatibility problems rather than testing in advance.

"We're actually saying to take a little bit of a sensible risk, [deploy Windows 10] to a set number of users, and allow those people to give you their feedback," Porter says. IT can then focus remediation teams on any applications that have issues without slowing down pilot deployments.

Application compatibility issues can in part be a result of timing -- the customer base is moving faster than the software industry. Many ISVs haven’t decided what they're doing with Windows 10. "They're behind the customers on making these decisions,” Kleynhans says. Most software vendors will have formal statement about what they're doing with Windows 10 by midyear, Kleynhans expects.

That timing is ok, since companies are still largely in pilot mode. Broadscale deployments will follow later.

"Right now is a good time for piloting, even big pilots. But I'm not sure we're quite ready yet for the full fleet deployment, for running everything in the company on the new operating system. We need to have the industry as a whole become a little more familiar” with Windows 10, Kleynhans says. "The second half of this year, I think, barring something catastrophic happening, Windows 10 and the ecosystem around it, will be pretty solid."

That applies, too, to the availability of experienced Windows 10 talent. "There's kind of a lack of understanding and real expertise out there right now about how Windows 10 should best be set up and run in a production environment,” Kleynhans says.

“Microsoft is trying to plug those holes, publish a lot of papers, get a lot of information and training out there, but the fact is it's new and it takes a while for people to try things in the real world and see what works and what doesn't work,” Kleynhans says. That would typically happen in the background, as companies work through the typical OS planning and deployment processes – but that timeframe is compressed with Windows 10, so “now it's in the foreground.”

Microsoft’s partners and professional services firms are developing those skills, and that “expertise will develop quickly because we're moving quickly," Kleynhans says. “But it's still kind of not proven out in the wild yet."

Get ready for continuous updates

While Gartner isn’t expecting major difficulties with enterprise Windows 10 deployments, the firm cautions that the new servicing model will raise challenges for companies.

"It’s kind of like getting onto a treadmill,” Kleynhans says. “Windows will get continual, regular updates. Those are going to come down the pipe, every four to six months, and you have to take them. Not instantly, but you do have to take them. You have to stay in line, and get things installed, and continually be looking at what’s coming down the pipe."

Companies that fall out of support risk missing security fixes. "People don't want to be unsupported, and that's what happens if you don't keep up,” Kleynhans says.

For the most part, the new servicing model will require companies to change the way they manage OS updates. Instead of preparing for large, dramatic Windows updates every few years, such as the transition from Windows XP to Windows 7, companies will have to handle smaller but more frequent changes. It’s the frequency that’s the biggest shift. "Overall it's less work for companies, but it’s different work, and that makes it harder in some ways," Kleynhans  says.

Fortunately, while it may look extremely daunting at first, companies are finding as they start to examine their processes that it’s doable. "Companies that have really rigid, strict change management policies probably will have a harder time adjusting," Kleynhans  says. "Organizations that are a little less structured in how they approach it today will probably find this less threatening."

Adaptiva’s Kumar adds that enterprises need to consider the impact of more frequent OS updates on data center infrastructure and networks. "This is really the future of how Microsoft applications will be delivered. I think it underlines the need for enterprises to have the long term ability to distribute massive amounts of data,” Kumar says. “The software is only going to grow bigger."

"I think longer term, it will be a very positive thing for Microsoft users,” Kumar says. “But in the interim, there are these challenges in how they deliver them."

This story, "What to expect from Windows 10 migrations" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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