I've been all over the US this year speaking about desktop virtualization and the future of Windows, and part of that discussion is what, if anything, should people do with Windows 8. I maintain now, as I did before the launch, that Windows 8 should be placed on the back burner when it comes to priorities in the IT department, and that the primary focus today should still be on getting to Windows 7 across the board and compartmentalizing your users and applications as much as possible (all off which leads to better desktop management). That said, there are a few people that see Windows 8 as a strategic platform for niche use cases around their organizations, mostly some sort of mobile use case where Surface Pro tablets will offer some needed flexibility.
Still, what if you were 100% migrated to Windows 7, and what if you were 100% committed to Microsoft going forward? In that case, is there a reason today to shift to Windows 8 in the enterprise? Let's look at some of the aspects that should factor in to the decision. To be clear up front, this is not looking at WinRT, which is the version of Windows that runs on ARM-based machines and the current Surface tablet. WinRT-based machines are effectively unmanageable, at least by the same methods we use to manage our regular Windows desktops. They are essentially like any other mobile device, so managing them requires more of an MDM/MAM approach.
Licensing belongs in the "low-hanging fruit" category of reasons to upgrade to Windows 8. With it's release, Microsoft has also somewhat simplified the licensing for the OS, especially in VDI environments. Essentially, you must have SA to do anything useful. You'll need SA on a primary computer before you purchase a Companion Device License, for instance, or Windows To Go. It's Microsoft's way of locking you in, and while it may be easier to decipher what's needed to license Windows in your environment, it's not exactly the kind of changes the community was looking for. For more information on this, check out Brian's post from April: Microsoft announces virtual desktop licensing changes for Windows 8. Guess what? They're still screwing us!
Nonetheless, with fewer editions of Windows and a clearly defined licensing model, there is sort of implied benefit of moving to Windows 8 as long as you have SA.
The elephant in the room when talking about replacing Windows 7 (or XP, for that matter) with Windows 8 is the interface changes, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone that completely adores all the changes. If you do, that person is probably a IT person or general geek that likes anything new. I like new things. I like the way Metro looks (although we've been calling it TileWorld for a while now because "Windows 8 Interface" is weird). I even kind of like the way the Surface tablet that we bought for testing feels. In no way does that mean that I want to use Windows 8 in the enterprise, though.
Paul Allen wrote a blog post (yeah, that Paul Allen) with his review of Windows 8, and even he found it frustrating that there are different version of applications in Metro TileWorld vs the desktop, and that those applications aren't aware of each other. His words are much more carefully chosen than mine, and probably do a better job of explaining the problem:
"I did encounter some puzzling aspects of Windows 8. The bimodal user experience can introduce confusion, especially when two versions of the same application – such as Internet Explorer – can be opened and run simultaneously. Files can also be opened in either of the two available modes. For example, after opening a PDF attachment in Outlook from the desktop, Windows opens the file in Microsoft Reader, an application more suited for use on a tablet, rather than the desktop Acrobat Reader. A manual switch is then required to return to desktop mode. Thankfully, you can alleviate these switching problems by changing file and program associations in Windows, as I'll explain later."
I would've said something like "…one other batshit-crazy thing I found was that when I opened up a PDF in the desktop it took me to a TileWorld app and I couldn't figure out how to get back to the app I was in without clicking or swiping a bunch of times. Seriously? I have to manually enter custom file type associations just to use my desktop the way I've been trained to do it for 20 years? What year is this?"
Thankfully, I'm not writing a review of Windows 8…oh.
Anyway, the UI differences are certainly there, and they remind me of when Office 2007 came out. Upgrading Office to a newer version is something organizations had done many times in the past, but Office 2007 was the version that released the "ribbon" UI. Organizations held on to Office 2003 for as long as they possibly could, and despite the fact that Office 2003 reached end of mainstream support in April of 2009, I'd imagine many still run it to this day. Sure, a large chunk of that is because an upgrade would cost a small fortune, but the UI changes also factor in.
Now, take those UI changes in Office, plus all the education and end-user consternation that went into upgrading from Office 2003 and apply that to an entire OS. Yikes.
Aside from all of that, though, the underlying OS is still Windows. In fact, it's been said that Windows 8 performs as good or better than Windows 7 in many areas, and Microsoft certainly hasn't taken away any management capabilities. System Center is being updated to support Windows 8 and TileWorld applications (.appx apps). Unlike WinRT-based device (the ARM version of Windows 8), it can still be joined to domains and managed just as you would have managed any other version of Windows. Frankly, if Windows 8 didn't have Metro TileWorld, it would feel like a Service Pack or maintenance release, and I'd be all for migrating to it.
Windows To Go
Windows to Go, or WTG, is one of the features unique to Windows 8 that's generating some interest, although I can't think of a place where I'd like to use it in my routine (or any of my past jobs either, actually). WTG gives you the ability to deploy a Windows 8 image to a USB stick that can then be booted up in just about any modern PC. If it has USB 3, you're more likely to have a good experience, but anything that can boot from USB will work.
The obvious benefit of this is that users can take their corporate-provisioned Windows desktop anywhere they go. Since a desktop booted to WTG doesn't have any exposure to the local storage on a computer, so there's no risk of cross-contamination. WTG can even be provisioned and managed by SCCM, which means we finally have a Microsoft-sanctioned, manageable way to boot Windows from a USB stick.
That said, where would you use it? I can't imagine people walking around with thumb drives plugging them into machines like bees searching for pollen. They'd get lost all the time, and I shudder to think about what would happen if any data was on the stick (which there most likely would be). The sticks can be encrypted with BitLocker, but since they're designed to be portable the device isn't tied to a specific TPM, which means that it's inherently less secure than using BitLocker on a traditional computer.
Perhaps the best use case I can come up with is for a user working from home. The user could take their corporate imaged thumb drive home with them and boot it up on their computer. The work image would be totally isolated from the personal OS and data, which alleviates the concerns that come with virtual machines running on Type 2 hypervisors or compromised PCs accessing remote desktops. To me, this is a pretty compelling scenario. There are others, like temporary workers or contractors, but they seem more like niche solutions.
The changes in RemoteFX warrant their own article, which is something that Brian did way back in February of this year. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out: Look out Citrix HDX & VMware PCoIP: RDP and RemoteFX in Windows 8 is awesome!
There are so many changes to note, like multitouch support and USB support for RDSH, plus game-changing things like honest-to-goodness WAN support due to the addition of adaptive graphics, UDP support, and advanced media remoting that will optimize and redirect any video in a RemoteFX session, not just Windows Media and DirectShow content.
Perhaps the best overall feature of RemoteFX in Windows 8, though, is that it just works. In the past, you needed to have a GPU on a Hyper-V host to use RemoteFX for VDI desktops, while terminal servers were able to use RemoteFX's features via a virtual GPU. The vGPU capabilities have now been added to Windows 8, so now you have the ability to leverage RemoteFX in any virtual desktop situation. Sure, you can still offload graphics processing to a GPU, but the bottom line is that RemoteFX is there for everyone to use now.
While there are some features of Windows 8 that are compelling, in the grand scheme of how we manage applications and data, deciding whether or not to use Windows 8 is going to be difficult. Do the new features outweigh the the challenge of the new UI? Sure, there are ways around the UI, but they're not officially sanctioned by Microsoft. Do we implement a work-around just to get at some of these features, deploy Windows 8 and educate the users on all the UI changes, or do we stick with what we have while we evaluate just what the next 3-5 years is going to do to the industry?
Many organizations are still struggling with how to deal with applications that they've deployed throughout their user base going forward. Many were burned by Vista and Windows 7 and have been forced to rewrite or replace them. In the past, the answer would have been to develop new apps in the Windows-based development platform-du jour, but with all the talk of a Post-PC era and the questionable decisions of Microsoft to have two application platforms in one OS make people leery of being burned again. That means that more and more companies are considering alternative platforms like browser-based, cloud-based, or mobile applications, and if you're not moving to Windows apps, why keep deploying Windows?
While others will surely protest this statement, I'm confident saying that Windows 8 will not be "Vista 2" in the Microsoft history books. The end result of "nobody's using it" might be the same, but I feel that the reasons for Windows 8's lack of adoption will be much different than those of Vista. Ripping out the Start Menu, changing the interface to Metro TileWorld, relegating the desktop to a second-tier interface, and creating two parallel-but-oh-so-different application execution environments is what will make or break Windows 8. The underlying OS, though, is reliable, optimized, secure, and manageable, which is more than we can say about Vista.
On the other hand, the industry is charging hard in a direction that Microsoft is only just now dipping their toes into. It might be too late, but Microsoft still has a lot of weight and money to throw around. On the other hand, the fate of Windows 8 is up to Microsoft because organizations faced with decisions about how to develop applications, manage applications, and manage data could always fall back on the fact that Windows pretty much just works the same way it always did. Organizations are moving to Windows 7 because they have to. The only way they'll move to Windows 8 is if they WANT to, and that will only happen after the evaluate all the other ways to develop and deliver applications and data. In the post-PC era, there are way more options than there used to be. Good luck with that, Microsoft.