Dear Colleagues

My good sparring partner, Luke Hancock, who is our IT guru, has kindly made some comments on the new Windows 7 due to hit you shortly (thanks Luke). I initially thought Windows 7 was a wondrous new environment fixing the Vista problems, but his take (below) is somewhat more cautious. Read on.

Microsoft will be soon releasing Windows 7, a new version of the Windows operating system.  Industrial users tend to be hesitant about adopting a new operating system  (with often very good reason), as their products are often centred on a specific operating system (mostly Windows XP).  Previous releases of Windows have often caused many headaches with early adopters (see Windows Vista and driver issues), and these problems cannot be tolerated by industry.

Windows 7 seems very similar to Windows Vista – however there are a number of structural changes to the operating system to try to enhance the performance of the system.  The minimum hardware requirements have not changed too much from Windows Vista, so a reasonably new PC should be able to run Windows 7 without too many problems.  The one area where Windows 7 has increased is in the space taken up on the system drive – the 32-bit version requires a minimum of 16Gb, while the 64-bit version requires 20Gb free space.  Compare this to the 15Gb of space required by Vista, and the 1.5Gb of space required by Windows XP Professional.  Independent testing of Windows 7 as compared to Vista has shown a slight speedup for most tasks – somewhere in the region of 3-5%.  The one area where Windows 7 has the edge on Windows Vista is in boot times, but again this will depend on the hardware configuration of the host system.  For full results, please see this link.

Most consumers will be mostly interested in the update of the Aero window system to include some flashy new effects.  The brush has also been taken to the venerable Taskbar, which has been redesigned to be more application-centric rather than window-centric.  Other users will be interested in the inclusion of multi-touch and improved handwriting and speech recognition features, and the inclusion of the Windows Powershell scripting environment.

Windows 7 will be released in a number of varieties depending on your requirements. There are 6 basic levels, however most industrial users will be looking directly at the Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate versions.  Windows 7 is also providing the basis for Windows Embedded Standard, and is heavily tied in with the release of Windows Server 2008 R2.

Multiple Processor Support

The Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate versions will both support 2 processors installed on a single PC.  This limit does not include the number of cores present on either processor.

32-bit vs. 64-bit versions

Each of the three versions mentioned earlier will come in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.  64-bit computing offers significant benefits for those systems that are expressly designed around using 64-bit applications.  The 64-bit versions will also run 32-bit programs, but with a speed cost due to the overheads involved in the 32-bit compatibility mode.  Also, many installations still require mission-critical legacy 16-bit DOS applications – with the 64-bit versions these will not run.

The final problem that needs to be considered in moving to a 64-bit version is the requirement for specific 64-bit drivers for hardware.  For those running legacy hardware (such as data acquisition cards), this may be a deal breaker.

Windows 7 XP mode

Microsoft has enabled a ‘XP Mode’ for those customers with Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate.  The required software will not come ‘in the box’ with Windows 7, and will have to be downloaded.  The software is a version of Virtual PC with a pre-installed, licensed Windows XP SP3 copy.

Also, you must have at least 2Gb of RAM and a processor with Intel’s VT or AMD’s AMD-V virtualisation extensions to run the XP virtual machine.  These include most versions of Intel’s Core2Duo and up, and also most of the AMD range post-Phenom.  However, the XP virtual machine does not have direct access to hardware, and is only intended to support legacy applications.

Solid State Disk (SSD) support

Finally, Microsoft has made some changes to natively support SSDs, and to optimise their performance given their unique characteristics.  This is important for industrial customers given the increasing penetration of SSDs into the industrial panel PC and automation controller market.  These include:

• Reducing the amount of disk writes and cache flushes
• Disabling disk defragmentation on SSDs
• Disabling prefetching and similar technologies on SSDs

In short, industrial users will display the usual reticence in using a brand new operating systems until all of the potential bugs are ironed out.  Given the extended period of testing and wide distribution of the Release Candidate versions of Windows 7, this may be a short period of time.  As always, any migration to a new OS should be managed carefully with stringent testing of the system to ensure that it meets your specific circumstances.

Thanks to Amplicon and CIO Magazine for some ideas for this article.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve and Luke