XP and Beyond

Should you jump on the new OS or wait for 2 planned post-XP releases?

When Steve Broudy began introducing Windows 2000 Professional into his companys desktop computing environment last year, he knew the enhancements in the new operating system, such as better security and stability, would make an accelerated migration from Windows NT worthwhile.

Today, two months after Microsoft Corp.s launch of Windows XP, however, the upgrade strategy for the CIO at Mann Theatres Inc., in Encino, Calif., isnt nearly as clear. Microsoft has also announced plans for two succeeding operating systems, code-named Longhorn and Blackcomb, to be launched tentatively in 2003 and 2005, respectively. At the same time, IS managers such as Broudy must consider new Microsoft licensing terms that reward more frequent upgrades with lower license charges and the fact that the software company will drop support for Windows 2000 in 2004, leaving Broudy little time to test Longhorn before upgrading, should he decide to skip XP.

After taking its sweet time rolling out Windows 2000 last year, Microsoft has returned to a pattern of releasing a new desktop operating system every 18 months or so. That pace, new licensing terms from Microsoft and a heightened need for most IT organizations to cost-justify all infrastructure investments have combined to make it difficult for CIOs such as Broudy to come up with a long-term desktop migration strategy that makes sense. So, rather than selecting a strategic desktop operating system platform and attempting a wholesale migration to it, many IT managers are accepting the fact that, for the foreseeable future, theyll be managing multiple Microsoft desktop operating systems at once while playing a tactical game of deferring upgrades as long as possible.

Experts say that approach makes sense for most enterprises, even though having multiple operating systems usually means higher IT support, training, testing and configuration costs. Gartner Inc., in fact, estimates that running two desktop operating systems costs on average 5 percent to 7 percent more than the cost of running one.

In many organizations, however, those costs can be offset by deferring operating system upgrades. It costs $230 to $500 or more for labor and licensing to upgrade a desktop from Windows 9x to Windows 2000, Gartner estimates. And that doesnt count desktop hardware upgrades required to run new operating systems. Many organizations learned, after leaping from 9x to Windows 2000, that associated hardware costs can be considerable. They found themselves saddled with labor and hardware costs when they realized existing hardware would not run the software efficiently.

Where to Start?

So what factors should IT managers consider as they mull the tactical decisions theyll need to make between here and Blackcomb? The first, experts say, is how far along you are in deploying Windows 2000. The further along you are, the less you need XP and the more sense it makes to wait for Longhorn, even though Microsoft has plans to discontinue Windows 2000 support very close to the time at which it has tentatively scheduled the rollout of Longhorn.

"Our advice is, as much as possible, try to get the latest operating system you can," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, in Stamford, Conn. "The average life of PC hardware is being extended, and we have a lot of enterprises with three-year upgrade cycles now starting to look at four-year upgrade cycles. Upgrade strategies should reflect that."

That advice holds, Silver said, even though Microsoft will continue releasing a new operating system about every 18 months and support each version for about four years.

"Microsoft has shipped commercial operating systems each year for four years running now, but enterprises have shown an inability to implement and a dislike for managing too many operating systems," Silver said. "Its just not feasible to begin a two-year upgrade and expect all desktops to be current with Microsofts release schedule."

For its part, Microsoft contends it is not releasing operating systems faster than it traditionally has or faster than most enterprises need them. At the same time, however, Microsoft officially acknowledges it is not feasible for most enterprises to upgrade in a wholesale fashion to every new operating system. Officials at the Redmond, Wash., software company said its release schedules are based on customer requests for enhanced features and technologies to be included in new releases of desktop operating systems.

Charmaine Gravning, XP product manager, said Microsoft views this latest operating system as an opportunity for IT managers still running Windows 95, Windows 98 and older versions of NT to upgrade and skip Windows 2000 entirely. At the same time, Microsoft also recommends that companies that have already invested time and effort testing and deploying Windows 2000 continue with that upgrade pattern, delaying any move to XP.