Scaling Mount Vista

Federal agencies look ahead to Microsoft's new operating system.

Standing tall in full dress uniform in a Rockville, Md., hotel conference room, Army Col. David Coker-an expert in logistics information technology-unabashedly makes an astonishing disclosure.

It's not classified, but it's mind- boggling: Until recently, the Army had been using the Microsoft DOS operating system to run its standard maintenance system. "Very archaic," Coker notes. Long ago surpassed by Windows, MS-DOS for most people is a distant memory of clunky green-screen commands from the early days of desktop computing.

Luckily, the Army has been busy over the past two years upgrading its DOS machines-but only to Windows XP, the operating system Microsoft re-leased in 2001. Since the software giant recently introduced Windows Vista, its latest offering, XP is now a generation behind. Vista is "something the military is going to wrestle with," Coker says.

And it's not alone. A former Homeland Security Department official recalls a sea of Windows 95 computers at Citizenship and Immigration Services. Another federal official has tales of Windows NT still in use. Modernization is replacing those outdated operating systems, but the official release of Vista has kicked almost everyone down a rung on the obsolescence ladder.

Like just about everywhere else on the planet, the federal government is Windows-dominated, mostly by XP and Windows 2000. Microsoft runs on 94 percent of all personal computers worldwide, according to IT consulting firm IDC in Framingham, Mass. The release of Vista creates an opportunity for agencies to think about desktop strategy as they figure out what to do with computers running on what's become yesterday's software.

Vista is a different beast from XP. It consumes far more memory per desktop-at least a gigabyte of RAM to function properly, according to most reviewers (Microsoft maintains that 512 megabytes suffice for a stripped-down version of Vista).

Features such as the snazzy 3-D user interface won't work on less than a gigabyte, though Microsoft Federal's sales force de-emphasizes the gee-whiz factor in favor of "infrastructure optimization," increased reliability, integrated search, improved security and mobility. Better security in particular-things like new data protection encryption, better user account controls and a tougher firewall-will drive adoption, says Patrick Svenburg, Microsoft Federal's Vista program manager.

Still, "If you don't have the RAM, sorry, you can't play, essentially," acknowledges Rob Campbell, a senior Microsoft Federal technology specialist. "Vista was built and designed for new hardware."

That's troubling news for many computer users, according to a December 2006 survey by Toronto IT reseller Softchoice. Recently manufactured PCs could be upgraded to meet the minimum or premium Vista requirements, but any desktop older than 24 months "will be unlikely to support the Vista OS," the report states. Microsoft itself predicts a spread-out curve, with Vista adoption happening mostly as existing hardware is replaced as part of the normal technology refresh cycle. Operating systems are a means to an end. "It's really not about the device or the operating system," says John McManus, the Commerce Department deputy chief information officer. "It's 'Do we have the right capabilities?' "

Even without Vista, XP would have an expiration date. Increasing user expectations and the growth of online software are changing the landscape. These days, thanks to the Web, innovation is everywhere. For example, a key selling point for Vista is desktop search, an obvious adaptation of downloadable search engine programs that gained popularity in 2004.

As a result, applications accessible through a network server, such as Google's online word processor and spreadsheet programs, represent a healthy chunk of the future. In the 1980s, IT moved away from the architecture of dumb terminals wired to a humongous mainframe, but the "software as a service" model is gaining new respect with remotely run applications accessible through the Internet. Even Microsoft got in the game when in 2005 it announced its Windows Live and Office Live, a suite of online applications targeted mostly at small businesses.

But while demand for new software capabilities is fueled by online developments, agencies still won't be able to skip a generation of operating system upgrades, warn technologists. Software as a service is "far enough away that you'll see some early adopters . . . but I don't see the federal community as a whole being able to skip" a move to Vista, McManus says.

They don't necessarily need to go to Vista, note proponents of other operating systems based on open-source code, such as Red Hat, made by the eponymous company in Raleigh, N.C. Companies selling open source (a synonym for Linux-based code) software more easily incorporate innovation into their licensed versions than does Microsoft, asserts Nick Carr, Red Hat's enterprise OS marketing manager. "We're talking about the IT supplier who believes he can improve the memory substructure," he adds. Tinkering without permission in a licensed version invalidates the warranty, but if users such as the National Security Agency have a burning need to make the Linux kernel more secure, they can work with vendors such as Red Hat or Waltham, Mass.-based Novell to incorporate changes into future versions. Nor is it necessary to exclusively commit to either Windows or Linux, Carr says. Virtualization enables the two to communicate.

Of course, whether moving to open source actually saves money when all the costs are tallied is a matter of debate. Microsoft says it doesn't. And not all applications are available in open source versions. Open source proponents say the cost advantage is theirs and application availability is catching up.

Finally, there's Microsoft's history of buggy software releases, especially in recently developed products. The company already is at work on Fiji, a code name for its rumored Vista Service Pack 1 update later this year. The company isn't talking about Fiji (other than confirming it exists) and denies there is anything unusual about updating Vista so quickly. ("We start working on the next version or the next service pack immediately," says a Microsoft spokesman.) But the constant code patches and updates aren't entirely Microsoft's fault. With software, there always will be patches, regardless of who develops it. Users, in fact, are responsible for a great deal of this because of their constantly rising expectations.

To illustrate, ask the Army colonel to compare XP to the military's old DOS system, and he'll wax poetic. "In a Windows environment, you open a screen, you can open multiple screens, you can pull down tables, you can right click for help desk," he says. Just as a widespread DOS presence created demand for a multi- tasking graphical user interface, solving the old problems with new software creates unanticipated challenges. (As I write this, there are no fewer than seven USB devices attached to my laptop to adapt it to my always growing needs.)

"We're not here to tell people they need to run Windows Vista," says Microsoft's Campbell. "XP is still supported. What it really comes down to is . . . why do [agencies] have those machines, what are their capabilities, and what do they want to do?"

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