CIOs need to evolve their desktop strategy after Windows 7, but migrating wholesale to the next Windows version may not be the best option.
Although Microsoft has stated that it will support Windows 7 for a further five years until 14 January 2020, IT departments should take a long-term view.
IT consumerisation and the trend for people to bring their own devices to work mean that a desktop strategy conceived a few years ago will look positively ancient by 2020.
Software as a service and the internet delivery of applications via a browser are set to become the normal way to deploy applications.
Desktop software strategy
Rather than standardising on Windows, IT teams need to consider how they will operate in a heterogeneous end-user computing environment, where users might carry three types of device including iOS, Android and Windows-based tablets and smartphones, all of which need to be supported.
Experts recommend taking a mobile-first approach to software and a generic approach to software development, to avoid being tied to a specific environment.
"We are making a big push on all our suppliers to support browser-based applications, so the device's primary application is just a browser," said Glen Larkin, lead technical architect at Kent County Council. "This is a bit of an ideal, so we will need VMware's virtual desktop to give us the flexibility to contain our legacy environment, leaving the end-user device space in a greenfield, vanilla place, giving us freedom of choice and better mechanisms to upgrade in future."
The challenge for IT remains application compatibility.
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In the report Plan Now to Avoid Windows XP Deja Vu With Windows 7, Gartner analysts Stephen Kleynhans and Michael Silver wrote: "The biggest compatibility issues in terms of applications not working will continue to be those that require specific releases of Internet Explorer (IE)."
Gartner said the new enterprise mode in IE supports strong backward compatibility with IE 8. "This is significantly better than that provided with previous compatibility modes," it explained. "It should enable many applications that require IE 8 to run on IE 11 on a per-website basis by IT, through group policies."
Some experts argue the case for developing applications for mobile devices first. When Transport for London (TfL) revamped its website, its head of online, Phil Young, said the new site used responsive design to reformat web pages in an optimal way for the device being used. So, on a smartphone, the new website renders in one column, while a tablet user will see two columns.
Although TfL's site is consumer-facing, its design principles can be applied in a business context, especially if IT does not have full control over which devices are used to access a given corporate application.
A report by Forrester, 2014 Mobile Developer Platform Preferences, recommends that IT managers explore the implications of adding support for additional platforms. "Start by asking all teams (design, development, quality assurance) to assess the impact of adding support for additional mobile platforms," it says. "If your team is building hybrid or web apps, the impact of additional platform support will be higher in QA than in development. If you’re investing in native apps, the impact on development resources could be substantial, and you may need additional testing resources to validate Android apps running on compatible platforms."
Clearly, a traditional desktop management strategy is not ideal in a world where users want the flexibility to run their own apps on their own devices. Virtualisation enables IT to separate the application from the underlying hardware.
While it is a long way off, we are already forming a strategy on what we do post-Windows 7 migration
Glen Larkin, lead technical architect, Kent County Council
Garry Owen, senior product marketing manager for end-user computing at VMware, said: "Today you have to run Windows on end-point devices all the time, while also making sure all your applications run on that operating system as well. In a virtual environment, you can still run a Windows desktop if absolutely necessary, but there is a choice: you could migrate some of your applications to the cloud, so that access is via a browser, rather than on a local copy of Windows which is highly application-dependent."
Kent County Council plans to address future Windows upgrades by separating the application from the physical operating environment. The council’s Glen Larkin said: "While it is a long way off, we are already forming a strategy on what we do post-Windows 7 migration."
Larkin says it is important to virtualise and containerise the council's desktop and user application environment so that any legacy applications are delivered from a single, central, contained environment.
"This opens the way for us to use vanilla devices on the LAN and WAN that have no application dependencies," said Larkin. "This gives us the agility to change versions of Windows or even OS platforms entirely."
He said the council is designing an architecture based on virtualising as much as possible and running applications in the browser, where possible. "If you can rationalise, standardise, virtualise and reduce complexity, you give yourself options and agility to move faster," he added.
Changing the council’s desktop strategy to support containerisation and browser-based computing will pay dividends the next time there is a major Windows release, says Larkin. "We do not want to repeat migrations the way we always have in the past – manually. It’s too expensive, cumbersome and you never get off the roundabout."
Browser-based applications, containerisation and mobile-first software developments are the hallmarks of next-generation end-user computing. So IT departments should start planning now because the desktop of 2020 will look very different from the one deployed in 2014.