As companies consider Windows 7 deployment timing, many IT veterans choose the traditional safety play: hold off on testing until the first service pack of the new OS arrives. In this case, Microsoft says that will be roughly 12 months after Windows 7 ships on 22 October.
But the situation is different for this OS upgrade cycle, analysts say. With automatic Windows updates delivering fixes on a regular basis, businesses should resist the urge to wait for the first service pack to start their Windows 7 deployments, says Gartner research VP Steven Kleynhans.
"Waiting for service packs made sense in the past because it was the only way people got fixes. That's not the case today," he says.
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A service pack - a collection of updates, fixes and possibly new features delivered as a single package - installs more conveniently than a series of individual updates, especially to multiple computers on a network.
"Service packs are not disruptive these days," Kleynhans says. "Most of the fixes in the first service pack of Windows 7 will already have been installed by users through Windows updates."
In fact, Gartner recommends that companies start testing for Windows 7 now, if they haven't already. The research firm expects that most companies will deploy Windows 7 some 12 to 18 months after it becomes generally available. At that point, SP1 will be the version people are rolling out anyway, says Kleynhans.
For each version of Windows, Gartner estimates that users can count on five years of mainstream support followed by five years of extended support. Mainstream support entails free, full support and all bug fixes, whereas extended support is paid and only includes security fixes.
Support for Windows XP, the most commonly used version of Windows, is already waning. Mainstream support for XP ended in April, 2009 and extended support for XP will end in April, 2014.
Though that may seem like a long time, Gartner warns that lack of ISV (independent software vendor) support for XP will become common at the end of 2011, so most companies will want to have deployed Windows 7 by then. Gartner refers to any time after 2012 as the "XP danger zone."
"If you wait until Windows 7 SP1 to start testing, you will run out of time," warns Kleynhans.
Service packs really mean the most to PC makers, he says, because they can deliver PCs to customers with a freshly updated OS after a service pack. "New PC owners will only have to download one or two updates in the first few months after a service pack," says Kleynhans.
For IT people, the appeal of waiting for a year of updates and fixes wrapped up in one package is understandable.
"It's ingrained in their heads as a mark in time. It's just one install," says Kleynhans.
But, he adds, service packs can also become an excuse for IT. To avoid being accused of testing too slowly, IT managers can say that they are waiting for Microsoft to deliver a service pack.
This time, that's not an excuse you want to make, says Kleynhans.