eWEEK Labs has been testing Microsoft Windows Vista builds for more than three years, and our evaluation of the final code shows that the new operating system is a significant improvement over its predecessor, Windows XP-chiefly in terms of Vistas capacity for manageability and the tools it offers knowledge workers for juggling their data. What's more, with a raft of subsystem and driver model improvements, Microsoft has laid out in Vista a solid foundation for stability and usability gains in future Windows versions.
For enterprises running XP on their desktops and notebooks, however, a Vista upgrade is no slam-dunk. While Vista's new UAC (User Account Control) facilities can make it easier for companies to appropriately lock down their desktops, for instance, it's quite possible to run a well-managed shop of XP machines, either out of the box or with the aid of lockdown tools.
Along similar lines, Vista's most important new goodie for knowledge workers-its integrated search capability-can be achieved freely on XP with software from Microsoft, Google and other technology providers.
Also likely to give enterprise IT organizations pause is the expansion of the product activation program that Microsoft began at XP's launch. This program requires consumer customers to transmit to Microsoft-either over the Internet or by phone-a code unique to their hardware. This assures Microsoft that each licensed Windows copy was installed only on one machine. Significant changes to the hardware installed on a system trigger a request for reactivation of Vista, and PCs that fail the activation check are rendered useless.
With Vista, Microsoft has opted to extend this scheme to its volume-license customers. IT managers now will have to allow individual machines to contact Microsoft for clearance to operate or deploy a key-management server within the enterprise.
Also, in many cases, Vista will require new hardware and software to deliver on its potential. For example, much has been made of the requirement in Vista for gaming-level graphics cards to unlock visual effects such as window border translucency and three-dimensional window shuffling. More germane to the needs of enterprise IT, however, is Vista's new WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model), which runs outside of kernel mode and, as a result, works to prevent display driver failures from bringing down the entire system.
Unfortunately, it's been our experience that graphics cards that don't make the 3-D effects cut lack WDDM-style drivers. Where this is the case, companies will have to pay for 3-D capabilities they don't need in order to acquire the driver stability from which any user could benefit.
There are a number of Vista features that depend on an application that doesn't technically exist yet-Windows Longhorn Server. These features include Vista's support for network access control. While it sounds clich??Â«, enterprises that want to deploy Microsoft's new operating system may want to wait at least for Vista Service Pack 1, as Longhorn Server is scheduled to ship at the same time Vista SP1 is released (sometime in the second half of 2007). It also makes sense to wait until then because more Vista drivers should be in place and software incompatibilities should be ironed out.
Compared with its non-Windows rivals, such as Apple's Mac OS X and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, Vista maintains the same advantages XP did: The operating system maintains compatibility with Windows-only software, as well as good support for open-source alternatives, such as the Openoffice.org productivity suite, the Firefox Web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client.
Another network-effect fruit of Windows' monopoly status in the computing market is Vista's hardware support. Vista, like XP before it, will tend to be hardware vendors' primary supported platform (with Linux and its open-source driver efforts following behind, and with Mac OS X, unfortunately, relegated to being a value-add for the machines that Apple markets).
Cost and Licensing
The Vista SKUs relevant to business users are Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise. The only difference between the two SKUs in terms of capability, as far as we can tell, is that Vista Business lacks the system's BitLocker feature. Vista Business also ships without Microsoft's SUA (Subsystem for Unix-based Applications), but this has been a free add-on in the past, and we imagine the same will hold for Vista. The Vista Enterprise SKU is available only to volume-license customers.
Also available is a Windows Vista Ultimate Edition, which ships with all home- and business-oriented functionalities.
A full copy of Vista Business Edition retails for $299, and upgrade copies sell for $199. Microsoft wouldn't share its volume-license pricing with us, so consult your reseller for pricing on the Vista Enterprise Edition.