A window into the three years it took John Lewis to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7

John Lewis

To most of us in the consumer space, it is relatively easy to upgrade to new editions of Windows. It happens when you buy a new computer, which most probably did long before Windows XP's support was ended. Readers of WinBeta are probably likely to upgrade the OS without purchasing new hardware too, and the $40 Windows 8 upgrade was an example of an easy way to get the latest software.

However, the situation is completely different in the enterprise world, and the sector that was - and is - instrumental to Windows' dominance in the world. Microsoft has always sought to please businesses, but also had to prod them by declaring the end of XP support a few years ago. Businesses were given ample time to upgrade, more time than feels intuitive to consumers. But it was needed, as it can be seen by the three years it took for London's John Lewis Partnership.

The switch started in 2011, and saw significant progress in early 2013. And it cost millions of pounds. It was a big enough task that there was talk of just not doing it and paying Microsoft to provide support. The United Kingdom went this route for some departments, and is paying £5.5 million pounds - not so attractive.

Having decided to upgrade, the first hurdle was the applications. There are 800 applications that had to be analyzed to see if they could be upgraded or would have to be re-written. The biggest hurdle in moving applications was dealing with User Account Control, a security technology that limits what an account can do on a service. This was a problem for applications on XP that did not limit where they wrote in the user directories, and could not be left as is and run on upgraded versions of Windows. Additionally, some applications leveraged features only found in IE6.

These apps were written in a time where most enterprise software was written for the operating system. Now a days, browsers are becoming the choice of platform. Which makes Microsoft's rapid development on IE, along with an open and accommodating relationship with developers rather important.

John Lewis's IT department was able to get about 90% of the applications to run on Windows 7, but there were some that had to be completely re-written. And there were some that they had to keep on XP, add security to the system, and hope for the best.

It was a large and costly undertaking. However, having done it, there are positives that make the company happy that they went through with it. Faster machines and up-to-date software result in happier staff, redundant applications were removed or streamlined, they have a much better idea of the computers and applications running on them, and there are better recovery and back-up mechanisms.

This process shows a unique window into the heart of enterprise software. It shows why Microsoft has to care so much about backward compatibility, and why it has to prod so much to get customers to upgrade their operating system.

The headache of managing legacy applications also shows why enterprise software is moving to browsers and the cloud. And scarily for Microsoft, prompts to use a "modern" browser such as Firefox and Chrome while using business apps in IE threaten to replace the prompts to use IE that people were all too familiar with, and hated. Thankfully, Microsoft has seen the importance of the cloud, and with emphasis on technologies like Azure and Cloud OS, they are leading the way of this change rather than burying their heads in the sand.

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