Should you be using Windows XP?

The latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system offers a way in to 64-bit computing and Web services. But should your...

The latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system offers a way in to 64-bit computing and Web services. But should your company be using it? And, if so, what are the issues you will have to contend with? Neil Fawcett has the answers.

Windows XP is both a possible route to 64-bit computing and Web services, but it has given rise to gags about Microsoft using it to just generate eXtra Profit. The question for users is whether this operating system is something to work with, avoid, or wait on.

The best way to answer this dilemma is to coolly look at what XP has to offer, and evaluate whether it should be included in your IT strategy.

In the operating system hierarchy Windows XP is the latest generation of 32-bit operating systems from Microsoft. Different flavours serve consumer users, business desktop users, users connected to servers, line-of-business applications which run entire companies, and users of powerful workstations.

XP replaces the Windows 2000 family of operating systems, except for the very high-end Windows 2000 Datacenter Server (see page 18) and sounds the death knell for Windows 95 and 98 and the ill-fated Windows Millennium. One point worth mentioning is that the difference between XP Home and XP Professional is negligible, with the home edition basically the business edition with several features crippled.

The exciting bit is that XP now brings the code base of all operating systems into sync with each other, which means the troubled 9.x code base of old (as in 95, 98 etc) is hopefully now dead and has been sent off to join good old Dos.

"Bringing the code base in line is a sensible move for Microsoft and customers," explains Neil Laver, Windows product marketing manager at Microsoft UK. "If you think about it, and given our support of older platforms, customers using a 9.x operating system should really be looking to move to Windows XP, or at the least Windows 2000."

The simple point that Laver is making is that time moves on, and so does technology, so it really is time to ditch 9.x and its hereditary ties to MS-Dos.

Note that even though we are just about to get Windows XP, more upgrades are already being planned. So it is something of a moving target, and any purchase of this technology should be preceded by a lengthy period of not only technology evaluation but an investigation of Microsoft's plans, some of which are available, others are veiled in secrecy.

Windows XP is the operating system that takes Microsoft properly into the 64-bit arena, albeit several years after it dabbled with Windows NT on the Digital Alpha 64-bit processor. This will take place on the workstation, where the likes of computer-aided design and scientific modelling will take place, and at the server, where 64-bit means more performance. Staggeringly improved memory bandwidth will enable new breeds of enterprise applications to be deployed on Microsoft platforms.

This is also the operating system that will work hand-in-hand with Intel's Itanium processor and its successors. In response to early user demand, Microsoft has produced a pre-release edition of 64-bit Windows XP, called Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition, for 64-bit Itanium servers.

However, the relatively high cost of Itanium systems and requirements for commercial software will continue to make 32-bit the dominant architecture until about 2006, but 64-bit will grow as a proportion of enterprise servers over time, driven by the declining cost of hardware.

All well and good. But the question is not so much whether Microsoft offers the right way to get to 64-bit computing but whether 64-bit itself is a good idea right now. Influential analyst firm Gartner has warned companies to exercise caution in deploying 64-bit Windows until the following things happen:
  • It no longer appears in a "limited edition"

  • Key applications are changed to exploit 64-bit computing. If this is not done, applications running in 32-bit mode on Itanium systems will suffer a performance penalty

  • Sufficient references for critical applications appear.

The other puzzle is Microsoft's product roadmap. Several variants of XP are on the way, each bringing new technologies that are all integral to the evolution of Microsoft's .net platform and therefore central to any online world that Microsoft will promote in the future.

Microsoft has bet its future on XML as the method of blowing wide open the issue of data portability and, in turn, application interoperability. As a result, any company that buys into Microsoft's vision of the future must buy into XML. This means that software such as Windows XP - on the desktop and server - will act as the foundation layer for XML and therefore will become an inevitable purchase for companies around the world.

However, Laver says, "This [Windows XP] is not the be all and end all with XML. It is a good starting point, but the Windows .net operating system will bring XML fully to the desktop." As yet no date has been set for Windows .net, which is the version of Windows that fully supports and endorses the Microsoft vision of Web-based software through what it calls the .net Architecture.

So be aware that buying XP means a lot more than just implementing a new operating system. The decision issues around XP are not the individual features and functions of the operating system but what it represents: a way into both 64-bit computing and Web services. The decision then is whether you want to adopt Microsoft's version of both these technologies - and that is a political question for you as an organisation.

Time seems to be the key reason why XP should fit into a company's IT strategy. If you use Windows as your operating system of choice, have bought into the Windows and Intel platform, but still use an older operating system, such as Windows 95, 98 or NT4, then it is time to move on.

XP, or at the very least Windows 2000, is the logical step to take for improved application use, but it will inevitably throw up a whole bunch of hardware and application upgrade issues.

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