Microsoft has released six free tools to help businesses deploy Windows Vista.

The tools, most of which have been available in beta versions for many months, include software to help companies see if their PCs are powerful enough to run Vista, to check whether their applications are Vista-compatible, and to activate and manage their volume-licensed PCs.

Windows Hardware Assessment 1.0 scans a company’s network to determine whether the attached PCs meet Microsoft’s minimum requirements for basic Vista readiness or Vista premium-readiness.

The tool can scan as many as 5,000 PCs and return results in a matter of minutes, according to Shannon Boetcher, general manager of Windows Client Product Management.

A survey last fall by Microsoft system integrators Softchoice found that about half of PCs running in North American businesses fell below Windows Vista's minimum system requirements - 800 MHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a DirectX 9 graphics card.

Nearly eight of 10 business PCs would need additional memory to run premium features in Vista such as its Aero 3-D "glass" interface.

Microsoft is also releasing its Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 for helping companies resolve whether popular packages as well as in-house software will run on Vista, and how to resolve compatibility issues.

As part of ACT 5.0, Microsoft is also creating an online community where, among other things, it will maintain a list of software that has been certified as meeting Microsoft’s standards for Vista compatibility, Boetcher said.

About 800 applications are on the initial list “with more pouring in every week,” he said. “There are many applications that aren’t yet on the list that will still work on Vista.”

The list was not online as of late Monday, though Microsoft promised it would be up soon. Boetcher said the certification, though not done by Microsoft itself but provided by third-party organisations, nevertheless sets a “high bar” for Vista compatibility.

Microsoft also officially released its Volume Activation 2.0 tools for large corporate customers, including its Volume Activation Management Tool and Key Management Service for Windows Server 2003.

With Volume Activation 2.0, Microsoft has significantly tightened Vista to prevent piracy. Formerly, companies could use the same volume key to activate many or even all of the Windows PCs in their network. As a result, those keys were vulnerable to theft and abuse by outside software pirates.

Now, corporations must either activate individual keys for every Vista PC with Microsoft or with a Key Management Service hosted on an internal server.

Microsoft said as recently as earlier this month that the Volume Activation 2.0 tools would not be available until next month.

Solution Accelerator for Business Desktop Deployment 2007 offers advice and tools to companies upgrading to Vista and Office 2007. Virtual PC 2007 is virtualisation client software. Software Assurance customers are licensed to use Virtual PC 2007 to run any of their older applications in environments as old as DOS, said Boetcher. Vista Enterprise Edition users can create up to 4 additional licenses of Windows per client PC.