The Windows OS Lifecycle
Windows 10 is the next major version in the Microsoft Windows operating system family, seeing its initial release in July of 2015. As part of Microsoft’s OS lifecycle, Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 will stop receiving updates and support in January of 2020 and 2023, respectively. In addition, 7th Generation CPUs from AMD and Intel are already requiring Windows 10 for driver compatibility, so anything released after early 2017 excludes compatibility with the earlier OSes. Since Windows 10 has matured considerably since the initial release, and with the end of life of Windows 7 less than a year away, it’s definitely time to begin migrating!
Software as a Service
Microsoft is moving to a "Software as a Service" model with Windows 10, which aims to bring features to users more rapidly than the traditional release model. Previously, major versions of the OS were released at about three-year intervals, with only minimal features and bug fixes until the next major version. Windows 10 will see a major update twice per year to introduce significant feature and functionality changes in a rolling fashion, similar to the “release early, release often” approach used by Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox web browsers. These semiannual releases do not require a complete reimage or installation of the OS from scratch, and are driven by the same process that provides smaller monthly updates.
This new model presents several challenges due to the ongoing rapid releases. Enterprise environments have traditionally maintained tight control and integration of the operating systems, hardware, and applications on certain supported versions. Since a new build of Windows 10 will be released every six months, with somewhere between 18 and 30 months of support, it requires adjustment to an always evolving environment running close to the latest version of the software. This means many additional possible combinations of OS build, software versions, and driver releases being integrated on the same system. And as always with software, new features bring new bugs to troubleshoot.
Windows 10 is required for all new hardware released since early 2017, specifically 7th Generation and later AMD and Intel processors. It will also run well on any relatively current hardware running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 successfully, but systems around seven years old may begin to have compatibility issues due to drivers. It’s important to not only verify and test drivers for internal components when migrating to Windows 10, but also peripheral devices such as printers and scanners which use hardware-specific drivers. Components such as displays and audio output devices are more or less the same and immune to driver compatibility problems.
Another consideration when moving to Windows 10 is moving to 64-Bit versions of the operating system if currently using 32-Bit versions of Windows. 64-Bit enables use of greater than 4GB of memory as well as additional performance and virtualization features of modern processors. A challenge of switching to 64-bit requires using 64-Bit drivers which may not exist for older hardware, even if working 32-Bit drivers exist. Note that the Windows operating system only runs the current “bitness” of the software, and one previous level. Therefore 32-Bit Windows will run 32-Bit software as well as very old 16-Bit software, while 64-Bit Windows will run 64-Bit software and current 32-Bit software, but has no compatibility layer to execute 16-Bit programs.
Moving forward, many new applications will rely on features only found in Windows 10, and will not work fully or at all on previous versions. Microsoft’s own Office 2019 suite will not install on Windows 7 or 8.1, even though they are current OSes in the extended support phase of the life cycle. Windows 10 is highly compatible with existing and recent software, though as with hardware, the older the software, the more likely it is that there will be some compatibility problems.
Some clues that software that may have compatibility issues are programs that integrate tightly into the operating system or otherwise extend the user interface or “plug in” to windows explorer in some fashion - often the hooks that these applications use are operating system specific, or have been deprecated since they were released. Another potential pitfall is relatively updated 32-Bit software that relies on an older 16-Bit installer application - If moving to 64-Bit windows, it’s possible that while the software is compatible, the older 16-Bit installer is incapable of running. Often a newer version can be located on the Internet, or by reaching out to the vendor for support.
As with all major operating system upgrades, there will be some compatibility issues and bugs to shake out, but in the long run moving to “the last version of Windows” and the Software-as-a-Service model will reduce these issues in the future due to the smaller, but more rapid, release cadence. Finding and mitigating the Windows 10 issues with hardware and software sooner rather than later will reduce the problems going forward, and enable a smooth transition to new products and features as they are released.