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Business Benefits to Windows 8

By now, you have likely read about several of the key features found in the new Windows 8 operating system from Microsoft. One question that businesses, particularly small businesses, may ask is “How does this benefit me?” While everyone may have their own opinion on this, I have tried to categorize what I see as some of the major benefits to utilizing Windows 8 in your company.

Part of the effort is to get by all the talk about the missing Start button! There’s no question there is a learning curve to adapt to this new interface, but the Start Screen replaces the Start button, and as more devices go touch, along with some adaptations proposed in the new Windows Blue, I believe we will all see the advantages. It’s not like we haven’t been here before as newly introduced OS’s and applications cause us to re-familiarize ourselves with the interface.

Usability/Compatibility

How much effort will it take to get to the new Windows 8. Maybe not much! There is a direct upgrade path from Vista SP1 and Windows 7. For XP users there has always been a a bit more work due to registry/driver changes.

The hardware requirement is quite minimal. 1 GHz or faster processor with support for PAE,NX and SSE2, 1 GB RAM (32-bit) or 2GB (64-bit), 16/20GB storage, and DirectX 9 for video. Of course, required doesn’t mean optimal and your own environment will really determine how much resource your machine requires. Certain features may require additional hardware support (e.g. for Hyper-V processor support for SLAT, certain screen resolution to support snap apps, etc.) The message is that unlike other migrations that required increased memory, change in processor architecture or storage, if you have a recent machine you are probably good to go for basic Windows 8!

An exception I have noted, is the Hyper-V support in Windows 8. This requires a processor that can enable Secondary Level Address Translation (SLAT). Depending on the age of your machine, you may find this missing.

Full Windows Experience on x86-Based Tablets

Windows 8 will be available on a variety of hardware platforms and we will be able to see the same interface with x86-based Windows 8 Pro tablets and tablet-laptop hybrids, as they’ll offer the new metro-style Start screen in addition to the full Windows environment. This means that tablet users can have the same familiar Windows applications, including a full copy of Microsoft Office 2013, and Metro-style apps on both their desktop PC and their mobile device. For the IT staff this means not having to relearn new OS interfaces and being able to apply current knowledge and products for IT management.

Bear in mind that these benefits apply only to x86-based tablets loaded with Windows 8 Pro. Tablets with ARM processors running Windows Run Time (RT) will support only the Metro-style apps, so they won’t be able to deliver the full Windows experience.

Applications

Win 7 Compatibility

Microsoft says apps and utilities that run on Windows 7 will run on Windows 8, meaning that enterprise software and development investments should be protected. This is true, but only to a point. Legacy Windows apps, including those written for Windows 7, will not run on the ARM-based version of Windows 8 for tablets.

Windows Store

The Windows Store, while lagging behind others in the current marketplace will benefit business in application deployment. Applications delivered via the Windows Store will need to meet a high standard for guaranteed use and security within the Windows 8 system.

Performance/Productivity

Hyper-V

Windows 8 will include a new feature, called Client Hyper-V, that offers the same Hyper-V virtualization capabilities that will be available in Windows Server 2012. Developers, IT administrators, and power users who need to run virtual operating systems inside Windows will have much more advanced capabilities than were available with Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode. This includes support for 64-bit virtual OSs, wireless networking interfaces, and sleep/hibernation modes. Virtual machines can also be moved to and from Hyper-V on Windows Servers, including support of live migrations where the virtual machine can stay online during a transfer.

Multi-Monitor Support

Although Microsoft estimates the percentage of Windows users with multiple monitor installations in the low double-digits, for those people , multiple monitor support has often been frustrating, requiring add-ons in order for things to work as expected. For example, in a three-monitor setup, the taskbar appears on only one monitor. While this isn’t a huge problem, it is a frustration. Windows 8 adds, for example, a multiple monitor taskbar and the ability to have different backgrounds on each display. While the background images won’t matter much, having the taskbar across all screens will make life a bit easier for the 13.48% of desktop-based power users that use two displays.

User Interface

Metro UI

Microsoft’s touch-friendly Metro interface could be a boon for mobile workers like delivery personnel or store clerks who need to keep their hands free as much as possible. Workers could view and log key business data with the touch of an icon on Windows 8 tablets. Microsoft is also giving enterprise application developers the tools they need to create custom Metro apps for their businesses. Those apps will be capable of feeding real-time business data to Live Tiles on the home screen, and can be distributed internally so workers don’t have to go outside the firewall to download them from the Windows Store.

Touch

Did I already mention touch? With the growth in mobile devices of all types, tablets, phones, hybrid, touch-centric interfaces is the direction we are headed. And if there was any doubt, the just-leaked view of Windows Blue, indicates that Microsoft is not retreating on its position.

Multi-platform

Learning the interface means being able to be more productive on multiple devices. Synchronization of account information and data between multiple devices means quicker access to data, less cross system compatibility or application issues, and less user training or support.

Safety/Security

Windows To Go

Windows To Go means users can take their workstation with them.

The new Windows To Go feature in Windows 8 Enterprise will allow you put a clean install or an existing Windows 8 image onto a 32GB or higher USB thumb drive or a portable drive and boot it from another PC.

Windows To Go can be useful for telecommuters and temporary contractors, because they can essentially fit an entire PC environment–loaded with the all the apps, settings, and files they need–in their pocket and boot into it with their own PC. This would be much more efficient than having to carry a physical computer from place to place. Windows To Go could also make the perfect backup OS for PCs that become infected or corrupt. And it can be managed by and secured with standard enterprise management tools such, as SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) and Active Directory group policies, just like an ordinary Windows PC. The USB drive can also be encrypted with BitLocker to prevent data theft if it’s ever lost or stolen.

Secure Boot

UEFI Replaces BIOS to Enhance and Secure Booting. Microsoft will require that new PCs bearing the Windows 8 logo use a new boot solution called Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), which will significantly improve the boot process and experience.

You’ll see much faster boot times, on the order of 8 seconds from pressing the power button to being in Windows. This, along with less need for restarts, can help increase productivity in the office and save IT personnel time when applying upgrades or installing software.

Safeguards built into UEFI can also help save the IT department time and resources over the long term. Secure Boot prevents unauthorized operating systems from loading, and Early Launch Anti-Malware (ELAM) protects against boot loader attacks. UEFI will also allow remote diagnostics and repair of computers within the pre-OS environment. So instead of physically sending a technician to visit a PC experiencing boot issues, it might be possible to repair and restore the machine over the network.

BitLocker

Another security feature, BitLocker drive encryption is a holdover from Windows Vista, but will run best on PCs equipped with the Trusted Platform Module, which may need to be enabled in the BIOS settings. Microsoft said that in Windows 8 BitLocker encrypts drives more quickly, meaning a reduction in worker downtime while data is being encrypted. One way it achieves this is by handing encryption off to hardware, and also by only encrypting used parts of the disk drive. Free spaces are encrypted later as they come into use

DirectAccess

Direct Access was supported in Windows 7 and Server 2008, but it has gotten easier to deploy with Windows 8 and Server 2012. Direct Access avoids the need to deploy costly, hard to manage VPNs for your mobile and remote users with an always on solution. Letting users have safe, secure access to your core network (and Group Policies) is important for IT staff supporting remote users.

Windows Defender

In Windows 8, anti-virus software is supported using Windows Defender. Security Essentials is no longer supported on Windows 8, and the earlier distinction between anti-malware and anti-virus has been eliminated.

SmartScreen ARS

Windows 8 features built-in software that’s designed to guard against employees downloading malicious applications, which could be programmed to steal corporate data or wreak havoc on a network. Smartscreen Application Reputation Service warns users when an application they are about to download is more likely to be unsafe. It works by comparing the app to known reputation data. Commonly used apps from trusted vendors get the green light, while more obscure software triggers a warning.

New network authentication methods

Microsoft added support for a several new network authentication types to Windows 8. The WISPr (Wireless Internet Services Provider roaming) protocol allows users to roam from one Wi-Fi hotspot connection to the next, regardless of which ISP is running the hotspot, much as a cell-phone user is able to roam between cellular carriers.

The EAP-SIM, EAP-AKA, and EAP-AKA Prime (EAP-AKA’) protocols can provide native authentication when connecting to mobile 3G/4G broadband networks. And the addition of support for the EAP-TTLS protocol means that enterprises and campuses won’t need to install a third-party client on PCs when implementing this 802.1X authentication type on their networks.

New Recovery options

Windows 8 brings two new recovery options (Refresh and Reset) that could help save IT personnel and users’ time when a PC becomes infected or corrupt, or when they’re being readied for disposal or reuse. Each of these recovery options can be initiated via the Metro-style Settings app within Windows, via the new boot Windows Recovery Environment (RE) menus, or even via booting from a Windows To Go USB drive.

Refresh keeps all the personal data, Metro-style apps, and important settings, and then reinstalls Windows. According to Microsoft, this can all happen in less than 10 minutes regardless of how much personal data is backed up. While it doesn’t keep the traditional desktop applications, it saves a list of them in an HTML file (without the license keys, however) that will appear on the desktop. If you create an image backup of your PC ahead of time, however, Refresh will restore your PC to that image. This would include any desktop applications that were installed at the time of imaging, and your most current personal data, Metro-style apps, and important settings would all be restored.

Reset removes all data and then reinstalls Windows so the PC is in the same condition as when it was started the first time. According to Microsoft, this can take anywhere from less than 10 minutes if BitLocker encryption is enabled, to up to 25 minutes if it isn’t enabled. The Regular option simply erases and formats the drive before reinstalling Windows, while the Thorough option writes random patterns to every sector of the drive to significantly reduce the chances of data being recovered.

Network Performance

SMB 3.0

SMB 3 is another behind the scenes improvement. But, when fully implemented, it’s one that users will probably come to appreciate. Server Message Block has been the base protocol for exchanging file and folder data over a Microsoft network. It is now in its third release. SMB 3 brings to the table major performance and feature improvements. SMB 3 also boasts encryption in transit and other features, including a new feature known as SMB multichannel. This allows the system to use multiple network channels, increasing overall throughout and adding fault tolerance to the environment.

Stephen Foskett has written a definitive guide to what’s new in SMB 3. It’s worth a read.

File System

SkyDrive

Tightly integrated into Windows 8 is support for the data portability in the way form of Microsoft’s cloud solution, SkyDrive. Users logging on with their Microsoft Account (formerly LiveID) will have immediate access to the storage provided within their SkyDrive account. Users get 7GB of storage for free and more is available for an added cost.

SkyDrive Pro

SkyDrive Pro isn’t really a Windows 8 feature, but takes the concept of SkyDrive and applies it to SharePoint libraries, for easier, faster cloud based storage in a more managed enterprise environment. This will be a standard feature of Office 2013 and Office 365.

Storage Spaces

Chances are you haven’t heard about this one either! Storage Spaces allows the user to use any combination of storage technolgies, USB, SAS, Serial and combine them into a singular storage space. This space can then be subdivided into logical storage containers, and can even be used to provide forms of data-mirroring, redundancy, and reliability so that if a disk fails it can be easily replaced and data reconstructed. The drives can be of varying sizes. If you decide that your storage space is too small, you can just replace one of your drives with a larger one to give you the headroom you want! This same technology is available within the Server 2012 family.

Management

Network Management Improvements

Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 include many new and enhanced networking features useful for administrators. Native NIC (network interface card) teaming provides network connection load balancing and failover by bonding two or more network interfaces. The updated Server Message Block (SMB) protocol improves the availability, performance, administration, and security of file shares and storage resources, with new features like encryption and transparent failover.

DirectAccess

See above. Less expense, less maintenance. Earlier versions of Direct Access were a bit daunting to deploy, but this has been improved for Windows 8 /Server 2012. From a management perspective, beginning with Windows Server 2012, deploying DirectAccess behind a border router or edge firewall is now fully supported. It is no longer required to have public IP addresses assigned to the DirectAccess servers external interface.

By putting the DirectAccess server behind a NAT firewall, client communications will be delivered exclusively using the IP-HTTPS IPv6 transition protocol. If you are using Windows 8 there is nothing to worry about in terms of performance and scalability because Windows 8 clients leverage NULL encryption for IP-HTTPS traffic.

However, Windows 7 clients cannot utilize NULL encryption and will instead encrypt all traffic using SSL/TLS . This will result in double encryption, which will dramatically impede performance and scalability.

Branch Cache

Windows 8 improves on the features and capabilities of Branch Cache. Branch Cache allows Windows applications that use network protocols to cache files and content locally from the remote server. Since files are stored locally, it will reduce application response time and reduce network traffic by avoiding another retrieval via the WAN. This helps users in remote locations to be more productive and experience faster response times.

Enhancements in Windows 8 to Branch Cache streamline the deployment process. It optimizes bandwidth over WAN connections between content servers and remote clients. Remote computers using Windows 8 can now access data and files and run applications in a more secure, efficient, scalable way.

Performance is improved by reducing data transfer size requirements through cache encryption, using data de-duplication, and minimizing block sizes.

Improved Task Manager

Training

Supporting users in the new world means getting IT staff up to date. Fortunately, there is a large ecosystem for training, starting with the Microsoft Learning Partners. Learning Is incremental, since applications and features are reasonably well understood from Windows 7. For example, there are no earth-shattering changes to the architecture of the registry, Group Policies will apply to new systems in the same manner as before, etc. Learning can demonstrate how to carry out familiar tasks more quickly, another business benefit.

Even users can benefit in reduced training by having the same operating system on multiple devices. Learn a skill and apply it to multiple devices.

Conclusion

There is more we could write about, but I thought it was important that we all got past the discussion about only a couple of the features of Windows 8 to see how we can all benefit from this latest technology. We have looked at many of the most common areas when evaluating the benefits of a new system: usability, upgrade and equipment requirements, security, performance, manageability and training. I think you will conclude that Windows 8 has far more to offer than the Start Screen!

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