With Vista in view, we've looked at desktop operating system migration from very close up -- zooming in on deployment (see Understanding Microsoft's desktop migration tools) -- and from the long view, stepping back to understand the Microsoft Windows release cycle and its role in timing and budgeting an upgrade strategy (see When to upgrade: Tips for taking best advantage of Microsoft's release cycle).

This month we'll cover several scenarios many companies are facing as they formulate their migration strategy. Gartner's recent report on Vista perhaps best articulated the issues in any migration: planning to minimise cost and risk, and identifying how best to protect networks, systems, applications and data in the process.

When it comes to meeting those challenges, we find that depending on a customer's present desktop environment, several elements come into play: hardware, application compatibility and application migration plans.

Windows NT

For companies still using Windows NT, cost savings alone is a significant consideration. Gartner has documented sizable annual per-desktop savings when comparing Windows XP to Windows NT infrastructures. Another practical consideration is the well-documented path from Windows NT to Windows XP. Microsoft does not presently offer a supported path from Windows NT to Vista, which suggests this migration could be both challenging and costly.

Windows 2000

For organizations running Windows 2000, hardware is a primary consideration. Many companies purchased hardware in conjunction with Y2k preparations and have continued to stretch the value of those investments rather than replace the hardware. In addition to desktop performance and compatibility with Vista, existing hardware upgrade plans will factor into deciding whether and when to migrate to the next desktop operating system.

At the same time, hardware replacement is important to establish a financial baseline for migration planning. This also raises the question of whether selecting a vendor and choosing a new supplier will require using new desktop images to take advantage of reduced and/or single-image desktop deployment capabilities.

If they're considering performance, companies running Windows 2000 may prefer Windows XP, not to mention the known migration path and the opportunity to establish best practices for future upgrades.

Indeed, many of our clients on the Windows 2000 platform are choosing to move to Windows XP Service Pack 2 -- often for gains in security -- rather than wait for Vista. One company is provisioning a Vista machine with its XP Service Pack 2 rollout in order to test it simultaneously and gain early insight into what does and doesn't work. The move to Windows XP Service Pack 2 also can reveal the effects that desktop migration could have on application development -- which is useful for future upgrades.

Nevertheless, some organisations may have business issues that make the decision of whether to adopt Vista an urgent one. Microsoft is committed to application compatibility and support, but the work is still in progress. If necessary, some firms may decide to accept on faith that compatibility will be addressed, and that their initial testing with Vista is sufficient to make the move. That said, we find most large companies take a more cautious approach to application compatibility.

Windows XP

Some of our customers using Windows XP Service Pack 1 are preparing to upgrade to Service Pack 2 for its advanced features and capabilities, or they're already rolling it out. In general, companies running Windows XP may find their best strategy is to stay the course and look for deployment processes that could be improved.

Can the IT team deploy the software remotely, with little or no deskside effort? Have implementation processes and standards degraded over time? In addition to an inventory of hardware and its capacity to support Vista, checking up on process and standards will help firm up a foundation for migration planning and good execution.

Consider collaboration

IT pros may find that issues indirectly related to infrastructure, such as better collaboration, are increasingly important to their migration strategies. That's because some of the most highly anticipated features of the final release of Vista are those that will allow greater collaboration, better workflow and improved communication.

And with collaboration in the spotlight, IT pros might want to think about applications such as Office 12 as they plan for desktop upgrades. The application suite is expected to feature tighter desktop integration and significantly more features, so companies planning to implement Office 12 may want factor these capabilities into their desktop migration strategies.

Ultimately, a migration decision needs to weigh costs versus benefits, rollout issues and the potential for improved efficiencies so that your operating system decision is consistent with overall business goals.

Christopher Burry is a technology infrastructure practice director and a fellow at Avanade, a Seattle-based integrator for Microsoft technology that is a joint venture between Accenture Ltd. and Microsoft. Michael Rosen and Rick Birkenstock are regional technology infrastructure practice directors at Avanade. Comments or questions can be sent to [email protected].