Long View of Vista

Microsoft Vista, a rechristening of Longhorn, is out in beta. But what will the final version look like?
Posted August 30, 2005

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

Last month Microsoft announced a new name for its long-awaited Longhorn operating system – Windows Vista – and followed it up with a first beta release of both the server and desktop versions of Longhorn.

But while Microsoft is promoting Vista with the tagline “Windows Vista Brings Clarity to Your World,” it is still not completely clear what will be included with the operating system. In fact, within days of the beta release hacks were already being publicized for a command shell that shipped with Vista; only to be followed by an announcement from Microsoft that the shell wouldn’t be included in the final release.

“Right now we are looking at a first beta,” says Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at the Redmond, Wash.-based analyst firm Directions on Microsoft. “It has some functionality in a lot of areas, but we are not sure what features will be added or dropped, nor how they will potentially change as it moves through testing.”

What to Expect

Recognizing that things will change as the operating system goes through testing, we do know that Microsoft is targeting three key areas with Vista – security, stability and manageability.

“When XP came out there was a perception that it was targeted at consumers,” says Cherry. “When Vista comes out, however, it will be attractive to both consumers and businesses.”

Microsoft has released quite a laundry list of changes that will – or might – come out with Vista. One of the features Cherry feels is most important is that it will limit administrator-level access. This will reduce the effectiveness of malware since it won’t be able to install unless someone is logged on as an administrator.

Another big area of upgrade is security. Microsoft is hardening the built in firewall and will block incoming traffic until the latest security updates have been installed. Detection and removal of malware is also built into the OS. Further, Internet Explorer, when used with Vista, will have a Protected Mode in which the browser will not have privileges to install software. In this mode, even if malware manages to exploit a hole in IE, it won’t be able to install itself on the computer.

Reliability, too, has come under the software development microscope. Vista will have built in diagnostics for the hard drive and memory, can restart failed services without a reboot, and comes with a Startup Repair Tool which can automatically repair items such as incompatible drivers and misconfigurations.

In the manageability department, Microsoft’s intention is to make the new OS far easier to deploy. Unlike previous monolithic versions of Windows, Vista is modular. Administrators can pick and choose which elements to deploy on which computers – and which ones aren’t needed. This avoids the software bloat that the company has been accused of in the past. In addition, new disk images can be installed without having to first backup user files and then reinstall them. And after loading new software updates, it is no longer necessary to reboot the machine. Vista will just shut down the affected services and restart them.

From the viewpoint of the end user, then, these improvements should make it easier to find and share files on Vista. Users can also now harness virtual folders: the user defines the parameters of the types of documents that the folder should contain and the OS locates the appropriate documents.

In addition to updating desktop Windows, Microsoft is also working on a server version of Longhorn. It released the first beta at the same time as the desktop OS, but the final version won’t be released till 2007 and won’t carry the Vista moniker.

“The desktop and server operating systems share a common set of core technologies – APIs and other elements,” says Cherry. “Fundamentally, what people are looking at this stage is whether the plumbing is done correctly, not what the final features will be.”

Additionally, Microsoft is expected to release Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition in the first half of 2006. This will give Windows shops the option of moving to clusters without have to learn Unix or Linux.

Getting Ready

The big question many organizations now face is how Vista affects their technology refresh schedules. Delivery dates have slipped several times already, and companies can’t necessarily wait another year for a final version before replacing aging desktops. For companies that plan to install Vista when it comes out, they need to make sure the new equipment will be powerful enough to run the new OS. One area to look at, for example, is the graphics card.

“Longhorn will come in two sizes, one for less powerful machines (and in particular those with integrated graphics) and one for more powerful machines,” says Jon Peddie, president, Jon Peddie Research in Tiburon, Calif. “Longhorn will be highly graphic and therefore will make great demands on the graphics processor in the system, as well as the PC’s RAM and CPU.”

Steve Kleynhans, Vice President Client Platforms for Gartner, Inc. in Toronto, Canada recommends getting at least 512 MB RAM (preferably 1 GB) and a mainstream processor.

“Of course, to get the full effect, the machine will probably require higher-end graphics and what today would be considered a higher-end processor,” he says. “Longhorn will support 64-bit multi-core processors which are only just coming on the market today and still carry a premium. However by 2007, the resources required will be in place in all segments of the market.”

But even with the hardware in place, many organizations prefer to skip initial software releases, and instead wait till it has been out for a year to iron out any bugs. This would put off installing Vista till at least 2007. In the meantime, particularly for companies that are still using Windows 2000, upgrading to XP might be a sensible choice. Then, once Vista has proven its value, and there is a critical mass of applications that utilize its features, they can make the switch. As Cherry points out, it is not the operating system itself that drives the change, but what you can do with it.

“The fundamental reason to change an operating system is that it offers them something they can’t run with their current version such as a better application or increased security,” says Cherry. “Then you can justify the cost of changing an operating system.”

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