Upcoming migration to Windows 7 could be a headache for agencies

Federal IT shops that still use Windows XP will be required to save data and settings before making the switch, or be forced to buy technical support from Microsoft.

Most federal agencies opted to not upgrade to the Microsoft Windows Vista operating system, a decision that will create a complicated and time-consuming migration to Microsoft Windows 7, the latest office version the software giant plans to release in October.

As few as 15 percent of agencies installed Vista, which was released in January 2007, said Ed Leary, Windows and accessibility specialist for Microsoft. Most agencies run Windows XP, first released in October 2001.

The upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 should be relatively seamless, according to Leary. But agencies moving from XP or an earlier version of the operating system will have an extensive migration in front of them, he warned.

XP users, who account for as much as 85 percent of all federal employees, will need tools Microsoft provides to save data and settings on computers, discs or an attached storage device. After installing Windows 7, they will have to reload the saved data and settings. The process also might require an upgrade to later versions of other applications because of compatibility issues that first emerged with Vista. Older versions of Adobe Reader, for example, ran on XP, but will not be compatible with Windows 7. Agencies also might have to revamp custom computer programs that rely on older versions of applications to ensure the migration won't affect functionality.

"Agencies will need to do all the upfront work that they should've done for Vista," Leary said, because Windows 7 includes the same enhancements that caused migration issues with its predecessor. "With Vista, the whole operating system was revamped to pay more attention to security, and that introduced challenges."

For example, drivers that allow computer programs to interact with an attached device had to be rewritten to eliminate security vulnerabilities. Users migrating from XP to Windows 7 will have to make sure those issues are resolved.

"These are things that should've been done all along, but government agencies being government agencies, take longer to do so," Leary said.

Agencies should first do a full inventory of computer applications running on existing machines, then enlist Microsoft or Microsoft partners to provide additional migration services. Agencies thinking about sticking with XP to avoid the Windows 7 transition process might want to think again. Microsoft plans to stop supporting XP after Jan. 31, 2010. If agencies do not install Windows 7, they will be required to forgo technical assistance for XP, or purchase extended support for the application. The few federal agencies that use Vista will have three years of support from Microsoft, after which they'll be required to upgrade to Windows 7.

"There wasn't a rush to go to Vista, and because of that there's pent-up demand to go to Windows 7," said Shawn McCarthy, research director for government vendor programs at IDC Government Insights. He expects an uptick in federal spending as a result.

But John Gilligan, president of the consulting firm Gilligan Group and former chief information officer at the Air Force and Energy Department, expects a slower rate of adoption. "Clearly, Vista was not the commercial success that Microsoft had hoped," he said. "Problems with Vista will likely cause many agencies to take a wait-and-see approach and to look for feedback from early adopters."

Microsoft could make special allowances for agencies that choose to wait, however, according to Joe McCrone, general manager of federal business at IT distributor Ingram Micro Inc. "It will be interesting to see the approach Microsoft takes, considering the install base still on XP," he said. "These are mission-critical infrastructures that need to be supported and maintained."

Agencies that migrate to Windows 7 also will have to comply with new security standards that the National Institute of Standards and Technology plans to release in October. The standards, a total of 70, will supplement the nearly 600 already included in the Federal Desktop Core Configuration, which the Office of Management and Budget issued in March 2007 to ensure agencies running Windows XP or Vista incorporated proper security measures.

Federal agencies that comply with FDCC shouldn't have trouble incorporating the additional standards that address new features in Windows 7, Gilligan said. "One of the benefits of implementing a disciplined configuration like FDCC is that migration to successive versions -- in this case Windows 7 -- is relatively straightforward, because you do not have to test a new operating system against many different legacy configurations," he said.

Microsoft also has been working with the Defense Department on the Federal Server Core Configuration, which will provide standards for ensuring security of the back-end computer processes that support software applications. OMB does not yet require compliance with these standards, but Leary expects that eventually will happen.

Despite the initial challenges that come with migration, Windows 7 will provide agencies with added features. For example, Direct Access will leverage capabilities available through Internet protocol version 6 to allow mobile users to access their corporate network remotely without a virtual private network. And BranchCache will use a central computer server to temporarily store corporate data and synchronize that data with computers at branch offices. This will allow branch office users to access content from their local network, rather than over a limited bandwidth connection back to headquarters.

Windows 7 also will include Virtual Desktop Infrastructure so users can access their desktops running in the data center from a remote computer, eliminating the need to download sensitive information to a laptop or handheld device.

Microsoft will host a federal launch for Windows 7 in November that will provide agencies with more detailed information, according to Leary, who expects Defense agencies to be the first to migrate.