Dec 31 2009

OS Tap Dance

Vista's almost here, but are you ready? Should you be?

Trying to ignore Windows Vista is like trying to ignore the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in your living room. Sooner or later, you’ll have to pay attention to it.

After years of anticipation, Microsoft recently presented the latest, and perhaps final, preview of Vista (Release Candidate 1) to thousands of reviewers, testers and techno geeks like me.

The preliminary verdict is in: There’s far, far more to like than dislike about Vista, including its awesome Aero interface, a bevy of truly major security improvements over XP, a sophisticated and long-overdue integrated search capability and, of course, its multimedia tools.

Not that it’s perfect. In the operating systems world, nothing ever is, despite what Linux lovers or the over-the-hill Unix gang would have us believe.

I did experience some annoying screen pop-ups that wouldn’t disappear, and I could quibble with some of its glitzier but unnecessary interfaces. But the only critical flaws were Vista’s inability to accept Symantec’s antivirus drivers and, worse, the driver for my Motorola Starband satellite Internet connection. Microsoft has promised to fix all or most of the application driver bugs before the final version of Vista rolls out.

Three Possibilities

Vista’s looming presence leaves information technology leaders with some important decisions that must be made now, whether or not you want to face up to one of the three chief options:

1. You can play ostrich for the time being, waiting for more feedback from other agencies before hopping onto the Vista bandwagon.

2. You can install Vista on a few powerful systems immediately and test it out for eventual deployment across your organization.

3. You can phase Vista in gradually as your legacy PCs begin to fade and Microsoft tweaks out the few ­inevitable bugs that seem to remain in all “final” versions­ of Windows.

Whatever you decide, the one thing you can’t afford to do about Vista is nothing. Let’s look at the factors necessary to point you in the direction that is right for you and your agency.

Typical home and SOHO consumers will be drawn to Vista because of the many features designed to pull them into the fold, such as its glossy Aero interfaces, advanced GUIs, improved user interfaces and the like. But don’t let the fanfare and marketing push for those users make you dismiss it; there is a more powerful side of Vista that IT departments at all levels of the federal government will find attractive.

Take its new integrated search capability: “Vista’s outstanding new search functionality is embedded everywhere and designed into the core of the system. This function will be important for users of all stripes,” says Andrew Brust, chief of new technology and technical evangelist for twentysix New York, a high-tech management and consulting company in New York City.

As a developer, Brust is especially pleased with Vista’s inclusion of .Net Version 3.0 and says that factor alone will provide a significant boost to federal software development teams.

Ready or Not

But is Vista stable enough for commercial release? “Overall, I’ve been pleased with Vista’s stability,” says Scott GoLightly, senior principal consultant for Keane Federal Systems in McLean, Va., a tester of early beta versions of Vista who is on assignment with the Army at its Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

GoLightly says he expects that the final version will prove even more stable than the beta releases. Like other testers, he hopes Microsoft solves nagging problems with legacy application drivers before final release.

As for Vista’s security features, GoLightly particularly likes BitLocker, a data protection feature that encrypts data on a PC’s hard drive, thereby protecting it if a machine is lost or stolen. The notebook PC stolen from the Veterans Affairs Department this spring ran an earlier version of BitLocker, which kept the data on the machine from being readable, GoLightly says. “It would take about 130 years to crack BitLocker’s encryption code — that’s plenty secure.”

A little-heralded but federally important feature of Vista is its adoption of the Internet Protocol Version 6 stack. The government has begun a massive transition process to IPv6, which increases Internet address­ability by, literally, trillions of users while fostering the use of advanced applications such as video, voice, mobility and other technologies.

“The new release of Windows Vista will make using IPv6 practically as simple as turning on your computer,” says Dale Geesey, vice president of consulting for v6 Transition, a subsidiary of, a global authority on IPv6 technology in Santa Monica, Calif.

The IPv6 additions are enticing because agencies face an Office of Management and Budget mandate to move to the new protocol set by mid-2008, but it’s Vista’s strong security features that will likely prove more attractive to agencies than any other single feature, GoLightly says (see security chart below).

Despite the OS’ pumped up security, agencies may opt to take a progressive Vista migration strategy, GoLightly says. For example, “the Army will have to give its blessing before it will be allowed on Army networks. They’ll put it through all its paces before they allow [Army personnel] to upgrade to it.”