Getting Technical about Windows 8

By Julie Ritzer Ross — October 26, 2012

The Microsoft Windows 8 OS debuts today. While there remain a few glitches that will undoubtedly pose challenges, Windows 8 offers a number of features that should appeal to the enterprise and end users.

Much of the promise of Windows 8 lies in standardization and, in turn, cost savings. Brian Posey, a Microsoft systems engineer, points out that many organizations use multiple OSes on a number of different appliances, including desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Windows 8 will run on X86/X64 and the tablet version, to be known as Windows RT, on ARM devices. The former will run on desktops and laptops, and the latter, Posey states, will look and act similarly on tablets, smartphones and, potentially, other devices. “The advantage to standardizing around Windows 8 and Windows RT is that customers will be able to support the similar operating systems,” he says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, support for X86/X64 PCs and ARM tablets ranked at the top of the list of desirable Windows 8 features cited by value added resellers (VARs) participating in a focus group held by D&H Distributing.

The OS was loaded onto Lenovo IdeaCentre B520 all-in-one touchscreen PCs, each complete with a Logitech MK320 wireless desktop package. Participants were asked a variety of questions about the system, including one pertaining to what they believe are its most important and desirable features. Dual-device support ranked number one, with 60% of VARs queried checking it off the list. A touch-centric, tile-based user interface and better support for multiple monitors rated far less important and were tied at 20%.

Elsewhere on the cost-savings and hassle-minimizing fronts, there is the Windows 8 Refresh feature. Refresh permits Windows to be installed without disturbing apps and OS settings. Leaving these intact during the re-installation process can lower maintenance expenditures.

It also saves time and facilitates matters when Windows encounters a severe problem. Whereas rebuilding may have been a relatively easy task if a deployment image was available, this is not a common scenario, and manual reinstallation of Windows requires a considerable effort in terms of man hours.

Moreover, Windows 8 Refresh is based on the Windows Systems Image Manager service. Consequently, when there is a need to refresh a PC, for example, replacement of kernel files with new copies of operating system files occurs via the process. Once the refresh has been completed, Windows links to any existing, previously installed Metro apps. There is no need to manually reinstall anything.

Tablet Integration
Support for tablet integration bodes well for Windows 8. Its configuration is such that it works fluidly with tablet solutions running Microsoft OS. In addition to full multi-touch support, it touts the usual keyboard and mouse inputs, eliminating the need for a stylus. Windows 8 also scales across a variety of devices — PCs, laptops and tablets — with power settings manageable in line with the form factor of the individual device.

Some proponents of Windows 8, who requested to remain anonymous, contend that its feature-richness places it a cut above iPad and Android tablets. For one thing, they assert, adding a Bluetooth keyboard, a wireless mouse and a stand turns a Windows 8 tablet into a PC. Although the same can be done with an iPad or Android device, only Windows 8 runs productivity apps like Microsoft Office. Similarly, iOS and Android tablets run stripped-down apps, not full-blown apps, as both Windows 8 and Windows 8 RTM do.

Second Largest Tablet Platform?
In a research note published in early June, analysts from Morgan Stanley purport that tablet shipments will exceed notebook shipments in 2013 and almost match PC shipments by 2015, spurred at least in part by the launch of Windows 8. “Our research suggests that 25% of users expect to buy a Windows 8 tablet, and Office is a key feature,” they wrote. In view of Microsoft’s strong position in business (and consumer) PCs, they added, “Windows 8 with Office could become the second largest tablet platform.”

Pushing the envelope, too, are productivity and security-boosting capabilities. The incorporation of BitLocker and AppLocker as an adjunct to existing Microsoft security tools constitutes an example. Instead of encrypting all data that resides on a particular computer, the former encrypts only data being used by a given employee, thereby decreasing the time needed to perform measures to secure that device. With AppLocker, companies can control employee access to apps on a case-by-case basis, hence putting a lid on accidental virus corruption and malware infestation.

Secure USB
Moreover, the Windows to Go component of the enterprise edition enables the construction, via BitLocker, of a secured, encrypted, fully authorized and managed version of Windows 8 on a USB thumb drive. This version contains individual users’ apps and data and can be leveraged on multiple computers while eliminating risk of tainting corporate data with malicious information, as may occur when mobile workers utilize rogue computers.

“Users can pop the thumb drive into any computer and get the corporate desktop right there, and when they pop out the drive, the desktop goes away, leaving no traces on the machine,” explains Don Jones, a partner with consulting firm Concentrated Technology. “This is a feature getting relatively little, yet highly deserved spotlight.”

Just as significantly, Jones says, the SMB 3.0 file-sharing protocol in Windows 2012 gets the best love from Windows 8. “Automatic fallover of load-balanced SMB shares yields a whole new, better way to take advantage of clustered file sharing,” he explains.

Custom App Build

In another vein, both Posey and Jones deem the flexibility to build and run custom apps and harness enhanced virtualization features as two major pluses for Windows 8, from an end-user and ISV standpoint alike.

Windows 8 development tools render it possible for proprietary apps to be designed to meet specific requirements and subsequently deployed within companies’ firewalls, far from the public Windows app store and its more generic offerings.

As for virtualization, the most recent version of Hyper-V resident within Windows 8 lets solution providers who are experimenting with and implementing different versions of apps run these programs on different platforms from one computer. A virtual format dubbed VHD facilitates storage of up to 16TB of data, with built-in security fail safes.

Naysayers Question Readiness

Such features and advantages notwithstanding, there are those who continue to question whether and to what degree Windows 8 will truly take hold. Some predict the timing of the release will be problem. While the end of support for Windows XP in April of 2014 will likely encourage a move away from that operating system and to Windows 8, there is speculation that enterprises that had already moved to Windows 7 will not want to engage in yet another transition.

One source calls the “yet to be perfected” features as possible deterrents to adoption — or perhaps plain glitches. The Refresh feature, which purportedly preserves some commonly executed customizations, but resets other customizations to their default values, is an example. “We will see what happens in October,” another Microsoft partner concludes. “But still, there is a lot of power in many of the features.”

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